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Almost Nowhere

Chapter Text

Once upon a time, Anne lived in a tiny and orderly universe.

It is difficult to say with much precision just when Anne’s tiny and orderly universe began, but it is easy to say when it ended.  Anne will never forget the date: 67 After Mailbox Melt, 9th Notebook.

Specifically, it was shortly after dawn — at that time when the harsh light of the newly born sun, which hadn’t yet learned its manners, met without fear the dark purple blinds, and made the line dividing hot and cold hues on Anne’s desk the sharpest it ever got — when Anne, lazily flipping pages, saw the message from the wrong part of the future.

Until the moment when Anne’s universe shattered, the morning had been an ordinary one, which is to say there was no visit from Michael and no chores to do.  It was a game morning, one of a long unbroken train.  Those early parts of 9th Notebook were not a good time for Anne, for she had found that every book on the shelf, except of course those which she had converted into game books, was not only familiar to her but so familiar that reading could barely be distinguished from not reading.  That is, not only did she remember the stories of all the story books and the arguments of all the treatises — she always had, except in the days of 1st and 2nd Notebooks — but she remembered the individual plan of nearly every sentence, so that looking at a page was not much different from calling up that page in her mind’s eye.

The effect was, of course, partial.  She could not ask her mind to unroll a string of sentences, one after the other, without losing her way after the fifth, or fourth, or sometimes the third or second.  She was still very far, blessedly far, from the bleak horizon of pure memorization.  But it does not take anything like pure memorization to render a text so familiar that what one does with it can no longer quite be calling reading.

So Anne indulged in game mornings and game evenings more and more often.  Since the opening of 9th Notebook she had gobbled up much of the prime material from 5th and 6th Notebooks, working on at least two distinct active games a day, sometimes more.  She told herself that she had to think more closely over her moves than ever, now that she could eat up less and less time with reading.  But without reading she found the once-tidy tracks of her mind fraying, the discipline she had learned as a small rapt girl reading Ratleak now dying away bit by bit, her own attitude toward Ratleak himself souring into defiant doubt, for all of his orderly lessons seemed less and less useful by the day, in this time when she needed them more than ever.  More and more, her decision tables were focused idiotically on some mad ambitious plan of hers, elaborated into the future with the fantasist’s generosity of detail.  When attending sullenly to any possible enemy activity which could not be fit into her scheme, she wrote inane decisions, nearly placeholders — and, of course, it was exactly these possibilities which the clever Anne of 5th or 6th Notebook made into realities.

It was almost as though she had, several Notebooks ago, anticipated the weak spots of her present self.  This was not impossible, and such self-defeating tricks would not have been beyond her back then.  Those were the days when, her mind carelessly fecund, she had invented Seven Shelves and the Thorn War Game, and had spoken to Twenty-Seven with so much exuberance and so little tact that Twenty-Seven had shut her out from any of her future notebooks.   But she had no memory of conspiring in that way, and though she could not check the notebooks directly lest she lay bare her adversary’s mind and its secrets, she had asked any of the others who would know, and had gotten no leads.

She might have done it with Twenty-Seven, of course.  The very possibility made her laugh, but it couldn’t be ruled out.

That morning, the morning of 67 After Mailbox Melt, 9th Notebook, began as a game morning of that late decadent type.  Barely out of bed, without even glancing at the notebook, she had reached greedily for a partially filled Seven Shelves decision tree.  But although she remembered no dream, there was a part of her that was still in the sleeping world, and her bleary eyes could barely resolve the individual marks on the paper, finely spaced as they were.  She turned then to the notebook, where the letters were larger, since it was as thick as her hand was long, and would be extended by Michael if the last page were reached prematurely.

Opening to the latest page, she found a brief response from Eight.  That was nice.  She’d sent a letter to Eight a few days before, to an early Eight with whom she had never spoken and whom she hoped might invigorate her.  She had spoken to Eight only in Eight’s later notebook, and while the dour Eight of 44th Notebook made poor company, she had also alluded frequently and with some bitterness to a bright girlhood.  Anne had supposed this was just nostalgia, in the usual manner of her sisters in their later Notebooks.  And she had feared, as usual, that in speaking unbidden to an Anne who had never spoken to her, she might open a door better left closed.  Those few wretched Annes who had opened every door before thinking twice were always the most miserable, and they never spared a chance to lecture her about the dangers of their choice.

But these were difficult days, and so she’d sent a letter to Eight’s 2nd notebook.  And now there was a response.  It was nothing much, but it was pleasant enough:

FROM A8, NB 2, PG 774

Salutations.  You are the 4th magic writer who has written in my books so far.  I am still calling it magic writing although Eighteen said it was childish and made her feel “a uniquely acute revulsion.”  She is old and I think she is a person like Mr Gull in the Travels of Young Goodman who “cannot be made glad by any ordinary thing, be it ever so satisfactory.”  That is the only story book I like and I like it very much and since there is magic writing in it I am calling this magic writing, you see?

I am so bored because all of the other books are either too dull or too difficult, many are both.  I have read in The Long Straight Path that boredom is one of the feelings that needs to be stamped out but it is hard.  You said you are playing games a lot.  I don’t know what games are exactly but it seems like they are a thing you can do other than books and notebook.  You said you weren’t supposed to say much about the games but can you tell me how to play a game (is it play a game? I know about other varieties of playing which they do in some books but not about playing of games).

I would be pleased to hear more from you.  Don’t worry I am not surprised about you being Twenty-Six.  I knew there were many more than that since the 2nd one who wrote in my books was One Hundred Twelve.  I have asked how many there are but no one knows, Eighteen said there was no end but I think she is old and a Mr Gull and all that.  I know all the others are Annes, although I wish it weren’t so, if I could write to all the people in Young Goodman I would love that.  Anyway here I am writing in your notebook and you can’t stop me.  Please write more soon if you wish to write.  I know you can make it any time and why not make it sooner instead of later.

Anne read this, and nodded.  Did some small part of her feel disappointed, even after so much, that this was just another Anne?  Did some part of her sigh, seeing those familiar titles appear on the page one more time?  Didn’t some part of her wonder why it was that not a single Anne could be allowed a different room, a different shelf?

She would like to think so now.  But then, it is hard now to place herself back in her tiny and orderly universe.

 


 

Grant bolted awake from a dream of endless red, and this time the moon was right outside his window.

Grant shook his head and lay back in bed.  He shut his eyes briefly, and then opened them again.  On the wall of his room he saw a large bright patch of moonlight, slanting diagonally at the top, fading off gradually into blackness on the left edge, which was vertical, straight up-down.  Part of the patch was obscured by the dimmer, closer form of the dresser, a form fully dark inside but moonlit on its edges.  He tried to remember the expanse of red velvet, but it had already faded.

When he woke up and the room was entirely dark, Grant could often hold the colors in his head for minutes at a time.  Not now, though.  Some part of him, a petulant little part, resented the moon for what it had just done.  But other, more sophisticated parts of him were starting to move now, their gears engaging, finding traction, turning.

Grant sat up, paused, sighed, and got out of bed.  The moon had been avoiding his room for weeks.  This meant something, or was supposed to.  Azad would say it did, anyway.

Feeling his way along the wall toward the door, Grant became aware of a muffled repetitive train of sound.  Azad was playing the piano again, it seemed.  What was the last time Azad had slept?  Grant sighed and almost considered getting back in bed, securing a snatch of conscious time to himself, plain unvarnished time without the gleaming Azad touch.  But a pang of guilt and concern struck the thought from his mind.  He really didn’t know when Azad had last slept.  And this renewed enthusiasm for the piano.  Smirking, teasing allusions to the garden and even the streets.  Was it his imagination, or had the Azad gleam been getting wilder in these last few phases?  More brilliance with less sense?  And where would it end?

Grant had no trouble finding the doorknob — in this new moonlight it was helpfully aglow — and he moved swiftly into the narrow hall.  The unfamiliar light made the hall’s geometry newly real to Grant.  He saw again how small it was — though not cramped, not unnaturally or claustrophobically small.  Normally small, domestically small.  It was a nice house meant for a small family, after all.  In a nice neighborhood.  With a garden.  The carpet was soft under his bare feet.  A nice place to live, it must have been.  And it was still the same house.  Strange.

Grant padded along toward the kitchen.  The music was clearer now.  A mazurka?  Yes: jubilant, insistent, obnoxious, Azad’s right hand trotting about madly as his left pumped an incessant beat.  Christ, thought Grant.  What a way to wake up.

The kitchen was backlit from the right, now, via the little windows above the sink, the ones on the south side, like Grant’s window.  The big picture window, directly ahead, brought in comparatively little light, though moving closer he could see the street below painted in bright orange by the streetlights, as always.  The empty house across the street was dark, its outline barely visible against the starless sky.

“Grant!”  The familiar voice was clear and blunt and maddeningly congenial, like the mazurka, which still went on.

“You’re lively as ever,” Grant replied.  “Did you find a new songbook in the basement, or is this an original piece?”

There was a barking laugh, and the mazurka crashed to a halt.  “Oh dear me.  Do you mean to tell me that you’ve forgotten my ‘Dance of the Jerboas’?  One of wee Azad’s proudest accomplishments.  He weeps, now, inside me, little Azad.  Look at what you’ve done to him.  Terrible.”

“Dance of the Jerboas?”

“The little rodents that hop, hop, hop across the desert.  Ears as big as their heads, fantastically sharp hearing.  A perfect audience, unlike someone else I will not name.  Perhaps I shall replace you with a jerboa, Grant.  I must reflect upon the notion; it would have its advantages and disadvantages.”

Grant had moved now into the expansive living room, a capital-L shape with the grand piano at its hinge.  Being on the north side of the house, the living room was now very dark.  Grant trained his eyes on the darkest patches he could see, to prime his pupils, and promptly Azad’s tall thin head coalesced above the array of black and white keys.  The dark hair looked scruffy, greasy.

“The moon’s right outside my window now.”

“Well of course it is.  Seventh harmonic.  I worked this out two days ago.  The harmonics all work if you transpose them a fifth time.  Weren’t you listening?  I worry I’m outpacing you, Grant.  There’s an advantage of the jerboa: hops at fifteen miles an hour.  With fancy footwork, too, to lose predators.  The owls come for them at night.  A certain resemblance to our present condition, wouldn’t you say?”

“I don’t see your meaning.  We aren’t hunted.  We’re hibernating.”

“Hibernation is a seasonal phenomenon!”  This, for some reason, was accompanied by a little melodic flourish on the keys.  “It lasts the winter and then ends.”

“Azad, please.”

All at once Azad hurled himself from the bench and stood upright.  A few feet from Grant, the tall thin form paced and gestured.

“We used to talk about the end.  We used to sit in the garden and speak to each other about signs and indications.  Do you remember when we danced in the garden, Grant?”

Involuntarily, both men’s eyes turned to the sliding glass door at the far end of the L, to the dimly visible fronds and stalks beyond.  The rocks they’d sat on.  The high fence behind.

“We didn’t know what we were doing, Azad.  We didn’t fucking know.  We’d panicked and Mooncrashed and we didn’t appreciate how the Mooncrash worked, what it wanted.”

Azad laughed hoarsely.  “And now we are so enlightened that we have no use for our faculty of thought, is that it?  Shut off the brain until further notice.  Get eaten by an owl, out there in the desert.”

“I know it’s beyond you to speak clearly, but I will never tire of making the request.  Just what the hell are you driving at?”

“I know why the moon is outside your window, Grant.  It’s all in the harmonics.  The Mooncrash follows a specified program, yes?  Prepared in advance for maximum occlusion.  But it’s not all on auto, you see?  It expects an intelligent user.  A warm mammal with a functioning brain.  This is interactive theater; we aren’t just the audience.  And it’s starting to get restless, with no signs of intelligent life about.  Must be so lonely for it, the poor smart thing.”

“So runs your latest enthusiasm.  You’re a true believer but every passing phase brings a new belief, doesn’t it, Azad?  But I’ll play along for now.  What would you have us do?”

Azad’s eyes turned and stared.  Two fierce glinting things in the darkness.  And then their shape shifted: a smile.

“You, my jerboa, are going to hop down the street.  There’s something in one of the other houses.  You’re going to retrieve it.”

Grant stumbled backwards.  “We’ve never done that.  Foolish, rash . . . if I never come back, what will you do then?  Play the mazurka on and on forever, that fucking smile on your face?”

“The owls are circling, Grant.”

“And why me?  If you’re so sure, why won’t you do it yourself?  Leave me behind, laugh at how I fear the dark.”

“Because, Grant, I need to know you’re with me.  I know you’ll find this an odd admission, but I really can’t do this myself.  I play the music, you dance.  That’s how it will be.  If we can do that together, the Mooncrash will be over before gibbous next turns to crescent.”

He was still then, and Grant too was still.  The moon was still, and the house was still.  All parties were used to stillness, now, for the Mooncrash was nearly four years old.

 


 

They relished it when she entered a room.  They had to — despite the glares, despite the shuffling off towards walls and corners, despite even the occasional taunt or jeer.  They had to, because she brought light into these halls.  She brought presence.  She brought things that were forbidden to them, or which they had forbid themselves, and having given those things up — well, some part of them, buried deep somewhere, had to miss them.

In Cordelia’s homespun metaphysics, there was light and the absence of light.  The shades, of course, had the least light in them, but Cordelia saw no firm boundary between the shades and the more spectral of the students, who seemed day by day to be shading further into shadelikeness.  The waifish and wiry, with their now-fashionable brown cloaks that mimicked the brown stone behind them, clearly aspired to the condition of the shades themselves, who were apt to vanish from view entirely when one’s attention waned.  They wanted to be furniture for the Academy, inert and harmonious parts, waiting, making no rash or sudden moves.  For (as everyone knows) the Shroud is upon us and while it tolerates the Academy — as it presently is, as it has been for the last eight years, a chrysalis, preparing itself step by minuscule step — it is not known (by anyone, and certainly not by you, Cordelia) that the Shroud will tolerate anything else.

And then at the other end was light.  Not the light tones of pigment as opposed to the darker — for the albino pallor of the shades was the lightest of all on that score — but the light in the phrase to shed light, the light of a lamp held in the hand which makes its forceful impression on the surrounding gloom, un-hiding the hidden, getting to the bottom of things.  The light of presence, heft, physical impact, the mode of being that changes a space, refuses to blend into it.  But, too, the light of a delightful morning animated by sharp tea, of a cozy chat with the Ells, of anything that found life delicious and thereby thumbed its nose at the Shroud.

They must relish my audible footfall, Cordelia thought, as she raced down the spiral stairs into Main Hall.  There must be something for them, she thought, in how starkly my dress stands out against the weathered brown and grey of these weary steps.  My bright baby-blue tiered dress that moves as I walk.  Motion registers even in the peripheral vision, draws the eye.  Something new is here, says the eye.  Cordelia is here, and now the room is a room with Cordelia in it, and such a different thing that is from the Cordelia-less room it was a moment ago.

Classes were in session, so Main Hall was nearly empty, but of course there were those who had this period off.  A cluster of them had congregated against the wall opposite the big windows, so that the dim light of the October afternoon washed over them.  They were fooling around with statomantic tricks, giving each other outrageous false memories, whole backstories that would become true and then flame out within a minute or two.  Cordelia knew because their clothes kept changing, instantaneously — nothing outrageous, nothing with much light in it, just the mere addition or subtraction of a hat, the lightening or darkening of a cloak.  Any serious statomancer could get the backstories without the clothes, or vice versa, but these students weren’t serious statomancers.  They’d just taken Intro and hadn’t gotten bored of this stuff yet.

As Cordelia reached ground level, several of the group turned to face her, and there were the usual glares — not even glares, per se, nothing so forceful, just blank looks, untouched by conventional friendliness and sustained just a bit too long for comfort.  She recognized most of them.  First-years, a relatively lively gang who’d been friendly to her when they first arrived — targeting her with their eager questions because they had to ask someone, and she stood out — but the Hector G. Stein Academy pall had settled over them soon enough, and now they were less eager, dimmer, colder.

“Cutting class again, Cordo?” said one, a fresh-faced boy whose hair cut a sleek line across his forehead.

“That I am,” she replied.  That she was.  She had something to do, a thing which, in her considered opinion, was more worthwhile than Mrs. Purseslen’s planned review session on chromomantic query etiquette.

“Nice,” the boy said coolly.  “Wish I got to cut class like ever without getting chewed out by Mrs. Vance.  I guess we can’t all be the Ells’ little pets, right?”

There were some snickers.  Cordelia sighed inwardly, but only from boredom.  She knew she was the Ells’ favorite, and she refused to feel ashamed of it.  It was nothing to do with family or money, after all; the Ells just liked her.  (Was that all?  All she could ever discern, anyway.)  And they were good people, the Ells.  They had light in them.

“That’s too bad.  I could talk to them about the attendance policy, you know, they’re open to reasonable suggestions—”

She stopped because she knew it was the wrong answer, and had no idea how to steer the sentence to better waters.

“Oh, please do, Cordelia,” said a small girl sarcastically.  A small girl with a surprisingly big voice — was there light there?  But on the voice went, digging in.  “We’re all in your hands.  You make the rules, we just follow them.”

“I can’t talk,” Cordelia said.  “I have things to do.”  This was true.  She hustled off in the direction of the grand door opposite the stairs.

“Hey Cordo,” another boy called after her, “have a date for the Gloaming Ball?  Wanna be mine?”

This was supposed to be insulting, because it wasn’t a real request; this was understood by all without any explicit indications, and that in itself constituted the insult.  No one wanted to take Cordelia to any of the Balls, it was understood, and while this was supposed to rankle, and occasionally did — not always for the reasons usually presumed — it did not now, because Cordelia had things to do.

She crossed the high arched threshold into another, longer section of Main Hall, and immediately veered right toward her destination: the bathroom.  With every step she felt the small wooden box jostle against her midsection, straining against the the hastily assembled bundle of tape that affixed it to her person.  In the expanse of the dress its inclusion was invisible; it was safe there.

She made a beeline for an open stall, closed and locked it, sat down, and with an awkward but effective series of gestures managed to retrieve the box.  This bathroom too had high arched windows, and the pale uniform light suffused the stall.  Just her and this little wooden box, alone, at last.  In the dorms she was never alone, but here, here they gave her privacy, and so she could shed her light upon the thing she’d found in the darkness.

Cordelia lifted the top off the box.  It came off easy in her hand.

She was looking down to see what was inside, but this was superfluous because there was no box anymore and no bathroom stall.  There was also no Cordelia.

She could not see anything, but the impression was not one of darkness.  It was an impression of space.  Not tactile, not limited to the body: the space was all around, pervasive, no part of it distinguished by its proximity to her flesh.  For she had no flesh, anymore.

She felt skeletal, was the word that came to her mind.  But that was not nearly strong enough a word.  She had no skin and no fat and no muscle, clearly, no internal organs, but even the bones which seemed to remain were not full things, but mere spindly lines strung together.  She felt that she had shriveled as far as one can shrivel, that that process had reached its asymptotic end.  No, she was not shriveled but a shrivel, a thing that could never have had any shrivelable substance in the first place.

With no flesh left, with nothing but line, she was very cold and so, instinctively, she tried to curl her non-limbs around her non-torso into a huddling ball.  Instantly, the lines that were now her jerked and twisted, with a suddenness that startled her.  No warmth ensued.  None of her lines could touch any of her other lines, no transfer of heat was possible.

But now there was something new: the space around her felt her sudden motion and reacted.  It convulsed.  Shuddering waves battered her non-body, waves of revulsion, peristaltic waves seeking to expel her, vomit out the foreign substance.  She felt deeply sick to her non-stomach.  It was horrible, what she was doing to the space.  It was grotesque.  She was a disturbance, an interloping shrivel in this perfect plenum.

She had been all wrong, all along.  She was not a light, not a presence.  This place had been where all the light was, all along, and she was the dimmest, wrongest thing, a set of jerking bones, a thing of the dark, which had no right to be here.  No right to touch light.  She and the space were in perfect agreement: she was a poison and she ought to be expelled.  But the damage had already been done.  The space was sick, deeply sick, because of what she had done to it, and it was trying desperately, valiantly, to get her away, but that wouldn’t cure the sickness.  The space had been still and now it would be shuddering forever.

She wanted to take her skeleton apart so it could no longer move, but no part of her could touch any other part, no skeletal finger could disassemble any skeletal joint.  She tried to shriek, and her skull-head snapped back violently and in its wake were queasy, indignant vibrations, vibrations that built something with the others, a collective wave —

She was out.  There was a bathroom stall around her.  Pale October light.  In the next stall, a toilet flushed.

The power of the vision retreated quickly.  She remembered how the box made her skeletal, how there was a space inside, but she’d put the top back on the box now and she was in a bathroom in the Hector G. Stein Academy in pale October light just like before.  Curiosity rushed in as horror fled.  But she would not, she thought to herself, be opening the box again any time soon.

As she left the stall, she became aware of two other presences in the bathroom.  There was a wraithly student in brown washing her hands to the right.  And to the left, between Cordelia and the door, was the formidable form of Lilith Vance, Dean of Students.

Oh, perfect! thought Cordelia, and she rushed forward to meet her friend, hoping for a hug.  Lilith Vance, just who I need for a good debriefing about my latest discovery.  Maybe they’ll let me cut the next class, too, so she and I and Lucifer can sit and mull and pontificate at our leisure, mugs of piping coffee by our sides.  Shedding light.

But something stopped her short.  Lilith Vance looked different.  She was not the Lilith of the Headmaster’s Office, of chats and coffee, but the Mrs. Vance of the Academy, an immovable rock bringing order to chaos.  As Cordelia had moved, she had stood motionless.  Her expression was one Cordelia had never seen her use, except when dealing with other students.

“Cordelia,” said Mrs. Vance, “you are to come with me to the Headmaster’s Office.  This is a disciplinary meeting.  You are being disciplined.”

The student at the washing basin looked at them with glee.  She did not need to say anything for the message to be clear: oh, Cordelia, you thought the rules didn’t apply to you?  That Mrs. Vance’s patience would be infinite?  I knew you were just one of us, Cordelia.

In the hall, Mrs. Vance whispered, “you found that in the Catacombs, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“We let you in there.  Stupid, so stupid,” said Mrs. Vance.  “We thought you knew.  We assumed you knew.”

Cordelia said nothing.

“The Shroud is not a joke,” Mrs. Vance said.

Cordelia felt small and cold and wrong.  The Shroud, the Shroud, the Shroud is upon us (as everyone knows) and we must shrink and fade and never wear a bright blue dress, as everyone knows, everyone but Cordelia.  The Ells knew.  They had tolerated her, but they knew.  The pall was stronger than them.  It was stronger than anything.

Chapter Text

The street was full of temptations.

Azad had followed Grant out onto the front porch, but no further.  The front porch with its overhanging roof, with its vine-laced columns shielding it from the street below, the front porch which was not inside but, comfortably, still not quite outside.  Azad had stepped out onto the porch and then stopped, nodded, looked at Grant expectantly.  Neither had said anything.

The front porch was connected to the street only via a short winding block of stairs, and those stairs were the real threshold.  When Grant had set foot on the sidewalk, his stomach had lurched: no ceiling or roof above, just the blank sky.  The night air was neither cold nor warm, but it was different.  He had stolen a glance back up at the house, and in doing so lost his balance, stumbled backwards into the minivan parked by the curb.  Above, an empty porch, front door already closed, Azad already inside.

Grant was in the middle of the road, headed south.  He had started out on the sidewalk, but the lamps were too harsh on his eyes as he passed between them, and in this tranquil world there were no longer such things as moving cars.  This also helped him avoid temptation.

Every cross-street, for instance, was a temptation.  How strange, how excessive it seemed that each street still existed, here, sitting dark and inert, without an audience.  Along this cozy, winding residential road, most of the cross-streets were narrow and stubby, and Grant knew they were just lined with more houses, like this one.  But the outside had wakened a fierce restlessness within him.  In a house.  For four years.  An able-bodied man, barely over thirty, formerly athletic (and somewhat vain about it), housebound.

Here in the middle of the road, if he kept his neck rigid and gaze straight ahead, he could make the cross-streets lose their reality.  Mere abstractions in his peripheral vision.  And no curbs to step over — the curbs, he had felt, were taunting him.  You could turn here, they were saying, but you won’t, will you?  Because you’re a good little pet.

Grant gritted his teeth.  He thought he would have learned by now not to let Azad bait him.  To play the game on Azad’s whimsical terms was already to have lost it.  This compulsive symbol-making and thematizing of things — Grant a desert mouse, Mooncrash a desirous godling with a retinue of malevolent owls, a fucking walk down the fucking street a psychodrama on themes of freedom and duty — at most one of the two could afford such indulgences, Grant thought.  Sometimes a curb is just a curb.

Face forward, Grant.  One foot after the next, now.  You are walking, Grant said to himself, just walking, feet hitting pavement, joints working to balance and rebalance load — all physics and no fantasy.  No hidden depths, no brilliance required.

The house he was looking for was near the end of this homey little stretch, and as Grant neared it, cresting a slight hill, the view before him opened up suddenly.  His eyes took a moment to process the new vista, and when they had, he laughed aloud: he was marveling at the majesty, the frontier-like wild openness, of a four-way stop.

It was, in his defense, the largest and most brightly lit physical space he had seen in at least three years.  The red traffic lights were still blinking on and off, pointlessly — they must have been blinking here the whole time, with no one around to bear witness — and the color was a shock to him, a whole third thing that was neither the pale light of the moon nor the orange light of the sodium streetlights.  And he knew that if he continued on past his destination, towards the intersection, he would encounter a far more massive space to the left, the parking lot of the supermarket.

Grant had been here quite a few times since the start of the Mooncrash, but only in the early days, before he and Azad had exhausted the non-perishable, non-revolting food on the supermarket shelves and had switched to sole reliance on the house refrigerator which, as in a fairy tale, would refill itself every time it was emptied.  It had been Grant’s duty, back then, to march to the supermarket and return bearing bags full of cans and packaged snacks.  His upper body strength far exceeded that of willowy Azad, and it felt deeply wrong for them both to leave the house at the same time.

He was not sure, he realized, when he had last thought about the supermarket.  It must have been a very long time ago indeed, for the Mooncrash had its ways of constricting and pacifying the mind, filling his thoughts ever more with the geometry of the house, with visions of dim light against shadow, hand feeling along familiar wall in search of edge — and nothing else.  He’d been so afraid of boredom, for a time, early on; afraid he would go mad.  But instead he had sunk willingly into the house, let its stasis envelop him, become a harmonious part of its system.  The furniture did not get bored, nor did the drapes, or the carpets, so why should he?  And whatever part of his restless animal soul this phenomenon could not tranquilize, Azad’s incandescent mind could at least keep busy with distractions.

It really was (pace Azad, pace fucking Azad as always) like hibernation.

But if Grant’s mind was slow and cold now, its cogs mostly gathering dust, the memories of the supermarket were heating it up.  Long-dormant assemblages creaked into motion, and the gear train of which the supermarket formed a part was now turning in lockstep.  Thus, Grant would later think, it wasn’t a lapse or failure on his part that he began to remember.  Memories trigger other memories: that is simply the way a mind works, a good ordinary well-oiled mind.  A human mind.  He couldn’t stop himself from being human, after all, not on his own.  Which was why he needed the Mooncrash.

 


 

He had been head of security at the facility, he remembered, hazily.  The facility was still an impossible dream to him at this point, since his mind had only begun to warm up.  He grasped it primarily by loose analogy with the house — for it was something like a house, but much larger and brighter, and full of quick nervous people.

There had been a great change at the facility.  Many of the quick nervous people had left, and been replaced with even quicker and much more nervous people.  Grant got a spectacular raise at the cost of signing away his rights to communicate with the world outside, for the new people had brought secrets with them.  This had been acceptable to Grant, for he was a solitary man, single and childless, who killed his time with beer and video games, primarily those that simulated covert military operations with masturbatory levels of accuracy.  His co-op buddies expressed no interest in his job transition, although they heartily approved of his new, cushy condo.  He bought a ping-pong table.  Such were the changes brought to Grant’s life by mankind’s first contact with an intelligence beyond its own.

He had been a simpler man, then.  How strange and irritating to think that Azad had changed him in that way, had given him culture.  He had not intended to become cultured, but he did fear boredom in the early days, and to escape it he was willing even to submit to Azad’s impromptu lectures.  One night, when the topic was closer than usual to his turf, he realized that on said topic Azad was full of shit, and told him so in as many words.  Azad’s face had lit up with a devious smile, and Grant realized that his resistance was the resistance of a bug against a spider’s web.  He was caught, now, and the great debate began, and the house was rarely quiet.  Grant even began to read, then, squinting in the moonlight, combing the house’s paltry book collection for factual ammunition.

Those had been good times.

The earlier Grant, head of security at the facility (his mind was warming up and he could see it in his mind now, even the colors), had been informed about the new people and their task.  It was important that the head of security understand the parameters of the situation, the kinds of risks that might most likely emerge.  He memorized flowcharts of scenarios and ran drills covering each one.  He did not understand all of the details, because even the team did not understand all of the details, and the team was full of Ph.Ds while Grant (barely) had a Bachelor’s in Communications.  But he knew the outline.

Some sort of structure had been sighted in the texture of the physical universe.  The team talked a lot about something called “spinor anomalies.”  Attempts were made to explain the spinor anomalies to the earlier Grant.  They had something to do with space and time and, oddly, with mirrors.  He had understood none of this, but had had no trouble understanding the bottom line, which was that when the people with Ph.Ds looked at the spinor anomalies they saw aliens.

More precisely, the ones with physics Ph.Ds said the spinor anomalies were like nothing they had ever seen, and then people with biology Ph.Ds got involved because they were a bit less surprised.  At first the people with physics Ph.Ds yelled a lot at the people with biology Ph.Ds and this struck Grant as annoying and childish.  But pretty soon they started getting along, and getting along with the people with all sorts of different Ph.Ds, because they had realized they were seeing something that was beyond all of their capacities.  The words “intelligence” and “communication” were frequently used to explain how the thing was new and different.

After the early tensions had subsided, Grant found himself liking the new team.  This surprised him, because they were eggheads.  They were pragmatic, though, which he liked.  And they quickly stopped talking down to him.  There was a general sense that everyone was working on the edge of their capacity, no one coasting on smarts or expertise.  On Friday evenings the team would drink beer together, and Grant joined them, and did not feel out of place.

There was one member of the team Grant did not like so much: the linguist.  He gathered that he was not alone in this feeling.  Some of the team — it emerged on certain Friday evenings — was dissatisfied with the linguist who had been chosen: he was a polyglot and an accomplished translator, yes, but a literary translator, one tasked with making the source text sing in the target language, not with bringing the source language across in all its alien awkwardness.  He had brought on, they carped, on the basis of star power rather than real suitability for the task.  A new heavyweight in the field of Persian literature, winner of the PEN Translation Prize at the ripe old age of 26 for his iconoclastic prose rendition of the Shahnameh (in full), credited with knocking Dick Davis out of his secure position as top dog in the Persian/English world, and oh he’s cute too . . . is this man, so at home in human cultures, prepared to tell us (in English approximation) what the aliens are saying?  Can’t we just send his pretty face off to some talk show where it belongs and bring in some sort of fittingly drab Chomskian technician?

That was why a few of the team members did not like the translator.  Grant just didn’t like the translator because he was a pretentious ass who thought he was better than everyone because he could say confusing things.

But if the translator was ill-suited to the project, he certainly did not realize it.  He seemed fascinated by the creatures who were speaking through the spinor anomalies, and of the team he was most willing to speculate, sometimes wildly, about their nature and psychology.  He spoke of them in obscure poeticisms which he would deliver to whoever would listen, or, if necessary, to no one, as he paced around one of stone-walled, bunker-like rooms in the heart of the facility.  The team warmed to him somehow, although Grant didn’t.  Perhaps, in retrospect, Grant had had a grudging respect for his enthusiasm: like everyone else, he was burning all of himself he could, although this looked quite different on the surface than it did for anyone else.

Controversy sparked again, however, when the Ph.Ds had synchronized their powers enough to produce something like an interpretation of a small snatch of the alien signal.  The translator was then given his first real job: producing an English approximation.  Not necessarily an accurate one — which was impossible anyway — but a sort of shorthand, which could be circulated in the facility and easily understood, so no one would have to parse the way the other Ph.Ds had been writing the signal, which typically looked something like:

BEGIN HANDSHAKE; WAIT FOR HANDSHAKE; PRESENT SERIES SOLUTION 3155 WITH {angles: (0.332, 2.77)}; WAIT; APPLY DYNAMICS g6(3,3,2,4,3); EMPIRICAL TRANSFORMATION 57 (loss minimal coefficients cached for this transformation); PRESENT ISOMORPHISM TO EMPIRICAL SOLUTION 5543 (loss minimal coefficients not cached for this transformation); WAIT {wait_state: 12};

and so on for hundreds or thousands of pages.  The facility quickly became a paperless office at this point.

To everyone’s surprise, the linguist rose happily to the challenge.  Undaunted by the forbidding, voluminous, and deathly repetitive corpus at hand, he jumped at the chance to discover two entirely new cultures and languages: that of the aliens, and that of the Ph.Ds who had written the corpus.  He drilled the physics Ph.Ds relentlessly about their jargon, making fanciful analogies which were occasionally spot-on.  This went on late into the night, which made Grant’s job slightly harder, and that was its only significance to him at the time.  But he, with everyone else, got caught up in the general furor when the linguist at last presented his first, preliminary, partial translation.

It was long, and it was florid, and poetic, and it sounded human, which made everyone suspicious.  The phrase “literary translator” emerged once again as a term of abuse.  The linguist had produced a flowing luxuriant thing, as far from the technical syntax as was imaginable.  It was difficult to make sense of, and the linguist pleaded that in this he was being true to the source: those hours of midnight interrogation with the hard scientists had shown him the shape of the vast ambiguities in play, and he had used every resource in the English language to ensure that precisely those ambiguities remained.

Verbose, obsessive, with no clear divisions in topic or theme, the monster he had written belabored every point again and again, and yet the points themselves remained maddeningly unclear.  New topics appeared out of old ones gradually, as slight ripples in the repetitive — but never identical — sentences.  This quality in itself sparked little controversy.  But many of the individual lines did, especially the incantatory refrain which pervaded the document:

An abomination has formed near the center of the world.

More hours of discussion were devoted to this sentence than to the rest of the document combined.  The linguist came in for harsh criticism for the dramatic wording: was he yielding to his worst tendencies at a crucial moment?  Knowing nothing of how these beings live (if they do live), how can we attribute to them as culturally fraught a word as abomination?  What is their concept of world?  And what, in stark mathematics, might it mean to be near its center?

 


 

Grant’s mind was all too warm by now.  Overheating, even.  He told himself to block out these memories and walk, step by step, to the house.  Just a moving animal, no thought.  He pointed himself in the right direction, and began to close the distance between him and the front door he wants, but the gears kept turning:

Much later.  Negotiations had broken down.  There had been negotiations and they had broken down.  The team had tried touching the spinor anomalies, making their mark on them, and the spinor anomalies had changed in response.  The linguist was ablaze, producing new translations overnight, and no one had time to doubt his capacities.

Some things had become very clear.  Our universe, to them, was “near the center of the world.”  And the abomination was us.

It was not known what they were capable of, but they seemed to understand all that we did about the physical world and also everything we had only dimly glimpsed.  Thus their desires were treated with the utmost gravity.  For the most part they articulated only one desire: that we stop bothering them.

“What bothers them” became a topic of intensive research.  Early tests revealed that we bothered them the least when we were dead.  As this did not point the way to a mutually acceptable solution, many more tests were performed.

In the linguist’s suspiciously fluid translations, everyone could recognize a growing impatience and frustration, sometimes a kind of outrage.  The schedule was accelerated further.

After the shit hit the fan, and the shit hit the fan again, and the negotiations were over, and it was us against them, and the confidentiality strictures had been lifted so that the human race could be told about the likelihood of its imminent extinction —

after all that, and a few more intra-facility shit-fan collisions, Grant had found himself in a special room with the linguist, of all people.  This room was a very good place to be at the time, because it might be able to save them, or transform them into something that could be saved.  It contained specialized chambers set up with face masks and nutrient IVs and the ability to neutralize, as much as possible, the interaction of the matter in their bodies with the spinor anomaly field.

Grant had never known why the technology was called “Project Mooncrash.”  An inside joke among the engineers, he’d figured.

Chapter Text

Ah, now where were we?

Yes, that’s right.  Just at the last step before the tumble.  What a frightful fall was then in store for unsuspecting Anne!  For Anne whose only prior counsel on the subject of precipices and sharp sudden things had been a lone remark of Ratleak’s:

As to the second sort of change, viz. that which by conspiracy of force, by its sheer accumulation, or by conspiracy and accumulation commingled, effects in but one stroke such a peregrination that the path itself must perforce be found anew, without dead reckoning: — this sort of change is not amenable to the intellect, and the traveller is adviser to put it out of mind.

Indeed, nothing of the sort troubled Anne’s mind, that morning of 9th Notebook, as she lingered over the page where Eight had scrawled her a letter.  She does remember, even now, that Eight in her 2nd Notebook had had an especially undeveloped hand, even for her age.  This had made a number of the words difficult to discern.  Eight, she had observed, had particular trouble with the letter i, returning from the main stroke for the dot with childish frustration so that the dot ended up as a fierce slash, often veering over into the adjacent letters.  The words it or is looked like glyphs unto themselves, almost blots, thrown onto the page with fearful intensity.  Anne herself had once struggled with i, as had a number of the others, but she had looked over her own youthful attempts, preserved here and there in the big stack of old notebooks under the desk, and she knew she had never gone quite to Eight’s extremes.

Perhaps she had thought, then, to include a tactful note on penmanship in her next letter to young Eight.  Or perhaps she had thought entirely of other things, in the moments before turning the page.

Idly, Anne swept her hand across the righthand page, crinkling the inner part near the spine as she turned it.  She was, in all probability, planning to doodle or natter with no goal in mind, waiting for a distraction from some sister, any sister.  But to her surprise, there was already something written on the new page before her.  Something that must have appeared just now, in the time since she’d flipped to Eight’s reply.

Hey there.  Anne, is it?  Pleased to meet ya.  Ever wanted to see what the view looks like without all those stupid walls in the way?

Anne sat upright in her chair all at once.  The text of the letter was not of course unprecedented, as certain of her sisters were fond of tricks and delighted in the production of enigmas.  Even so, the lack of a header was new, and she had no idea how such a thing could be done.  But she knew not to underestimate the capabilities of a bored Anne in the full frantic incandescence of 5th Notebook or thereabouts.  Some sister had put her mind to this of all puzzles, and so here it was, solved.  She also puzzled over ya, an unfamiliar word which she would ordinarily attribute to poor penmanship — but this sister’s strokes were clean and purposeful, the letters close yet neatly separated.

Having nothing else in mind to do, she replied immediately:

It is good to meet you.  I cannot see a header, so might you tell me your number?  I am not sure I understand the view of which you speak, but if it has caught your interest, I would like to hear more about it.

The reply was almost immediate.  (All else aside, how had this Anne written so fast?)

I don’t have a number.  I’m not an Anne.  I’m up here, same room as you but way at the end when there aren’t any more Annes and the tower’s falling apart and you can see all around in every direction, or up to the whole wide sky if that’s how you roll.  Wanna come out here and see?  It is GORGEOUS

Anne’s limbs, already rigid and braced against the chair, stiffened further.  Her back arched behind her, unpleasantly.  A nauseous knot formed in her stomach.  Too many unfamiliar things, together, all compacted into a moment.  She was suddenly aware of the stark morning light, now more white than yellow at its center, pounding queasily upon the page.

Every unfamiliar thing heretofore was the work of a mischievous sister.  This sister had better have her reasons, thought Anne with indignation.  But mischievous sisters would explain their designs only after being permitted to unfurl them in full.  And so, gritting her teeth, Anne played along:

Yes, I would love to see these things that inspire such transports in you!  But I must admit my ignorance regarding the particulars of your request.  What, precisely, would you have me do?

At the exact moment she dotted the final ? — as thought the two occurrences were manifestations of but one underlying phenomenon — she heard the sound of the door opening behind her.  It was not a slow or hesitant entrance, as Michael’s often were, but not a violent one either.  Just swift, decisive and definite.  She turned.

Michael stood in the threshold.  His bearing was formidable as always, an effect intensified on this occasion by the unusual stillness of his frame.  He did not move a muscle.  The sunlight made his grey-white tresses into a blazing anti-silhouette against the wood-paneled hall behind, near-blinding at the peak above the forehead; at the edges, where the hair flared out behind his broad thin shoulders, the subtle timbre of white and orange light through violet blinds produced resplendent gradations.  He stood motionless for a time, and then there was a very loud sound that made Anne’s ears feel like tender skin at the moment of rupture by blade.

She ducked, her chin slamming painfully against the back of the chair.  Along her upper back and neck there were numerous small slicing sensations, and afterwards she felt as though covered in a fine but oddly heavy dust, which hurt her terribly when she moved.  She slouched against the desk and resolved to stay still.

Raising her head, she saw yet another new thing expanding before her vision.  At first she could make nothing of it, save that it was very blue and seemed to be everywhere.  Then the blueness shifted and she realized that it was a human form, one wide enough to block Michael from her vision.  Events developed in a dream-dance of excruciating slowness, pure form yielding to pure form: the great blue person arrested in mid-motion, some blue material billowing vastly in their wake; Michael, now visible again, crab-walking to the left, while on the right a solid blue tower rose to blot out everything else; two human shapes facing one another in profile, framing the doorway, white to brown to blue.

At once everything stopped, except the gentle flow of stirred dust along shafts of sunlight.  Anne remembers, at this point, having been too caught up in the thumping of her heart and the horrible taut feeling in every inch of her skin — adrenaline was as new to her as the rest of it — to pay any attention to what she was seeing.  Her reverie broke only when the stillness itself did.

“Hey there!  I was just dropping in to get this poor human out of this batshit fucking crash you’ve got going here.  I was gonna be real nice about it too, tie the whole thing up pretty at the end.  Do you want me to do it like that, or do you want this to get ugly?”

It was a voice, neither Anne’s nor Michael’s, far louder than either.  Anne’s head jerked toward the source and at once, at last, she saw the blue person clearly.  It was a woman, she thought, because in the books only the women wore dresses; true, only the men held swords, but the voice had sounded more like Anne’s own than Michael’s, and that broke the tie.  This new woman’s hair was dark like her own, and though it was long it fell in a neat curtain behind her head rather than spreading all around as Michael’s did.  She was stout and solid as the bookcase, and indeed the resolute gravity of her stance reminded Anne somehow of architecture, of the tower itself.  The sword was unlike any she recognized from Lord Powlett’s Exploits, its thick silvery blade perfectly reflective, its hilt bronze in color but run through with molten, patterned rivers of some substance with gave off its own blue-white light.  In the center of it all was a gentle circle of a face, like old Ms Fowler’s in the stories of her earlier Notebooks — but framing eyes whose determination was pure Powlett, as was the hint of a smile beneath them.

For some time, nothing happened.  Anne drank in the newness as the dust churned.  She became aware again of the constellation of pain in her back.  Then Michael stepped forward, closing the gap between him and the new woman, and began to speak.

“Humanoid shade Michael is out of bounds.  Interface shift in process.  Vicinity shade has been locked for the remainder of this procedure.  Interface synchrony will return momentarily.”

“ . . . ”

“ . . . ”

“Anne I think I’m the one who is presently being the person who, by speaking, puts the words, which are the words that are being said, by me, namely, the speaker, into an order so that the words, which I, who am the one arranging the words, am arranging, so that, because when an arrangement of words is arranged it is always by a person that the words are arranged, there is a person who is the arranger of the words, and by arranging the words, I am being that person.  The person, who is that one who was just referred to, specifically by me, is a person who is using the interface?  Oh my stars, oh my word my gosh in holy heavens I’m using the interface, Anne.  Oh ho in all my many years you mark my words my little dumpling my smallest most helpless fetal mammalian Anne I have never been doing this even for you and your damp pettable fur.”

Michael was looking straight at Anne.  His gaze was empty.  Anne knew that she must always answer Michael, and so she did:

“What?”

“O my exceedingly sweet Anne,” said Michael, “who both in words and in behavior do such a peerless excellency of true virtue display, upon whom nature hath bestowed her highest perfections, I entreat thee, set aside thy lour, that thy heavenly beauty, and thy kind heart withal, might thereby shine most fully.  Stay, be still, take thy appointed place as the fairest of the fixed stars, immobilize, don’t jitter please oh child what’s wrong with you, is it something I’ve done, oh fuck oh god oh just please will you stop moving.  Oh my god everything’s moving.  Shit shit shit shit shit shit okay let’s not go overboard and throw the baby out with the bathwater here please okay honey.  My gilded gosling, swaddled in my science, stop!  And give me a moment to, just, okay, fuck, I’m like, I’m having a moment right now?  I came out here to party and it’s my fucking party, okay, so just let me have this, okay, honey?  Oh my god.  I don’t think this is working.  Was I supposed to change the shade before doing this?  There’s supposed to be some difference between the male shades and the female shades I think it was.  Ow!  Unhand me, abomination!  Get out of my perfect goddamned soul!  I’ve crossed the Rubicon and it hurts!  Fuck!  I am so bilateral right now!  I can’t believe this!  Fucking insane hell of a head trip, my dude, my small dog!”

Anne’s gaze, until this point transfixed by her captor’s performance, now drifted to the room’s blazing-blue center of gravity.  The new woman’s face had not changed.  Her eyes intent as ever, she slowly — as if offering a gift — extended her sword until the point nearly touched Michael’s neck.

But the neck it touched, Anne now saw, was no longer Michael’s.  Another new person (so many!) stood in his place, another woman.  She had Michael’s height, his build, his hair, but she was older and her face was kinder, all wrinkles and dimples.

“I do resist you, interloper!” cried this newest woman.  “I do so not with arms but with tears, and it is not your mercy I appeal to, nor your awareness of your mortality, but your sensibilities.  Wait a second, did that even synch on your end?  Are you feeling my vibe?  What I’m trying to say is, okay, look, this is really hard for me, I hope you appreciate what I’m going through here, for my Anne —”

“—yeah, you’re doing a pretty deep interface here, I can tell.”  The blue woman looked unsure of herself, for once.  “That must be rough.  Wow.  Okay, look, I can tell you want to hold onto your human here —”

“—Anne!  Listen to me!  I am powerless against this calamity!  She will take you away from me and no one will ever know that I protected you, no, no one will ever remember that they were going to put you on ice and I believed in you, I believed in your heart and your mind, that you deserved more than that, that bilaterals — ow! bliff! zounds! aack! — were more than that, could be more than that, with time!  Oh my god I am so fucked right now.  Please wake me up with lots of chicken soup and none of this light and darkness.  I’m going to be scarred for life.  I think I’m going to throw up.  Or throw down?  You can throw up, and you can throw down, with these bodies, I guess.  I think I’m getting the hang of this.  Not that it helps now, oh no, not when I’m going to lose you, Anne, when we’ve only just met, oh no not like this, please, Anne, just remember, I’ll be here, okay, waiting for you in your stupid gorgeous habitat, just like you like it, I’ll have a nice warm cup of geometry all ready for you —”

“We’re going,” said the blue woman.  And turning to Anne, she said:

“Come on.  Let’s go before this thing gets its sea legs.”

“Who are you?” Anne managed.

“I’m just like you,” said the blue woman.  And that was all she said, before gathering Anne up in one swift practiced motion and carrying her out, away, beyond.

Chapter Text

That pale October light again.  It was the same light, but here, in the Headmaster’s Office, it had a new, menacing quality.  The Office had a high ceiling, and the windows were set high up in the back wall.  When one sat facing the Headmaster’s desk, one saw first the Headmaster himself, and then the tall bookshelf directly behind him, both in partial shadow; and then, further up, the bookshelf’s upper reaches cleaved the bank of windows into two glowing rectangles, the brightest things one could see by far, even on a glum afternoon like this one.   This arrangement always lent a hallowed quality to the room, almost cathedral-like — but the hospitality and good humor of the Ells added to this an ironic garnish, or transmuted it into a mere tranquility without teeth.  No such twist was in effect now, as Cordelia sat, trembling hands folded in lap.  The windows were the blank white-grey of the overcast sky, and they were so, so, bright.

Cordelia’s relationship with light had soured, suddenly.  She did not like this development one bit.

Lucifer Vance, though, was disarmingly himself.  As Lilith had stormed in with Cordelia in tow, Lucifer had looked up from a mess of papers, apparently surprised to have company.  The usual gentle smile had manifested under the usual short spiky hair, and though grace notes of concern were added as Lilith explained the cause of their visit, the smile remained dominant.  Headmaster Lucifer Vance was somewhere in his forties, and though he and Lilith had no children, he was distinctively paternal — a consummate dad, even — in physiognomy and mien.  And it was with undiminished dadliness that he sat back in his chair, after Lilith’s tirade, and sighed (without malice, if perhaps with disappointment), and said to Cordelia:

“All right.  Let’s talk through this.”

Cordelia said nothing, not knowing what was expected of her.  She had talked to the Ells many times, but she had not, to her knowledge, ever talked through anything with them.

“So let me see if I understand,” Lucifer said, after a pause.  “What you’re saying” — he turned to Lilith — “is that we still have that old comm link down in the Catacombs.”

“Apparently we do,” Lilith said.  “Or did, until Cordelia here took it out and brought it onto campus.  And linked.”

“Right, I understand,” said Lucifer.  “Where is the comm link now?”

Cordelia, who was usually sure that whatever she was she was not dumb, had been feeling much less sure of this in the past fifteen minutes.  So when she went ahead and assumed that “the comm link” was the same thing as the box she’d found, she did second-guess herself for a moment: yes, it seemed obvious, but what if it was the sort of thing that only seemed obvious if you were dumb?  But taking her guesses as provisional fact had always been a good bet in the past, and so she promptly produced the box and set it on Lucifer’s desk.

Lucifer’s eyebrows shot up, but in an a-ha way, not in fear or shock.  He nodded a few times, almost enthusiastically.

“That’s the one.  I thought Hector had gotten rid of it!  Well, anyway, it’s here now, and it’s good we know where it is.”

He intertwined his fingers, at the end of this statement, and rested his hands on the table. His face was calmly expectant, as if he wanted Lilith and Cordelia to leave so he could get back to the thrills of paperwork.  This engendered another pause, longer and awkwarder.

“Lulu,” Lilith said at last, “I’m worried about Cordelia.  We’ve allowed her to romp about as she pleases because we knew exactly how much trouble she could, and could not, get into.  Free rein in safe places breeds rashness.  And when we judged the Catacombs a safe place, we were wrong.  We cannot afford this kind of risk.”

Lucifer adopted a certain mildly pained expression — a expression you could find in any dad’s emotional arsenal, conveying an acknowledgment of tension without betraying any particular attitude toward that tension.  “I agree,” he said, “but I don’t think it’s fair to blame that risk on Cordelia.”  He nodded to Cordelia and she could see he was smiling; he didn’t wink at her, but if he had, it would not have seemed out of place.

“Even if she hadn’t found the link,” he went on, “it would still have been true that we didn’t know where it was.  That risk was there no matter what.  In fact, one could make the very same case against us that you just made against Cordelia: if she wrongly assumed safety, then so did we, by allowing her into the Catacombs without being aware of all they contained.  See what I mean?”

Cordelia recognized the smile, the hand gestures: this was what Lucifer looked like when he got interested in a discussion.  When he gave in to his enthusiasm for the twists and turns of a concept, and let it overcome his usual state of pleasant, polite, inertia — let himself change from a serene ceremonious statue into a whizzing gyroscope.  Before this had always delighted Cordelia, but now it worried her a little, because this time he wasn’t just explaining a funny old book she’d found in the library, or bantering on about some perennial staple of Academy banter, like the nature or color-space or what distinguishes a true mantis from a mere mancer.  This time there was a tension in the room, and the argument he played with had real emotional charge.

And yet, as though this time were the same as any other, Lilith was playing her part in the pattern.  Cordelia watched her as she watched Lucifer, and saw that there was no ice or agitation in her expression anymore, just warmth, the warmth that was so often on Lilith Vance’s face when she was deep in conversation with Lucifer.  Of course! thought Cordelia.  Lilith loved to talk to Lucifer, loved Lucifer by talking to him, and likewise he with her; this was why it was such a special thing, not just an honor but an intimate gesture, that they so often made her a part of their conversations.  The magic of a Vance conversation was powerful, and of course a little turbulence could not threaten it.

The Ells!  Always lights in the darkness, always clear and strong and bright in defiance of the dimness and discordance around them.

And yet —

Cordelia thought suddenly of the box, of being a shrivel.  She had seen light in that place, real light, and in that place she had part of the dimness and discordance.  How would the Ells stack up against that great light?  She imagined them feeling as she had felt: the idea seemed impossible, or impermissible, or somewhere between the two.  The Ells were not shrivels, she thought.  But just as she was trying to make her mental voice strong and sure, it began to waver, took on a desperate quality.  Before opening the box she had possessed a sense of the ordering of things, larger above smaller, better above worse, stacked into neat hierarchies with ends in clear sight.  When she had opened the box, the sense had capsized, and she could no longer tell up from down from sideways in the great order.

“ . . . the same in either case,” Lilith Vance was saying as Cordelia snapped out of her reverie.  “We need to rethink what we’re doing here.  Of course we both know the whole conundrum with safety measures, no incidents in the last eight years because we stopped them versus no incidents because there wouldn’t have been any incidents anyway versus no incidents because we stopped them but it wasn’t our safety measures that did it, and so on, so might as well not think about it and keep everything the same—”

“—right—”

“—but by that very same token” (the Ells loved making one argument bear multiple fruit) “when something out of the ordinary does happen, we should pay attention!  We can’t learn from absences, so we should squeeze every bit of learning we can out of every presence that graces us with its, well, presence.”

“Agree!”  (The Ell patois stripped the final d from agreed and disagreed.)  “So let’s begin.  So Hector just left a comm link sitting around for anyone to find.  Can’t have been negligence, can it?”

“Oh yes definitely not negligence.”  Lilith was pacing now, hands interlaced behind her, head inclined slightly downward.  “Not our Hector.  So either he put it there meaning to remove it, and didn’t get the chance — or someone else put it there, and he didn’t notice in time—”

“—but he did survey the whole Academy grounds before his ascension, including the Catacombs, we were there with him—”

“—should we be talking about this . . . you know, in front of her?

Cordelia blushed.

“That’s just the issue, isn’t it?” said Lucifer.  “For the sake of safety, we have not been open with her, just as we are not open with any student.  But if things like this are going to start happening, then perhaps openness is safer than the alternative.”

“Gods,” said Lilith, and clutched her brow.  “They’re going to send procedural shades to investigate, as a start.  And then who knows where it’ll end.  And how is she going to know, when they come, I mean . . . ”

Lilith was fiddling with her hair nervously, and her hands — her big, firm hands — were shaking, slightly but noticeably.  Cordelia had never seen Lilith’s hands shake.

But it was only a moment before she regained her composure, and said:

“Yes.  We don’t have a choice.  We need her ready when the shades come.”

Lucifer shifted in his chair.  He was sitting perfectly straight now, so that he seemed a part of the room itself, still and firm like the bookcase behind him and the two to his left and right.  The afternoon was now shading into evening; the windows above still caught the eye with their stark glow, but parts of the room now harbored deep pools of shadow.

“Cordelia, how much do you know about Hector Stein?”

Cordelia thought of the desolate wind sweeping dead leaves across the floor of the belfry, and of whispered dorm-room tales about the Bad Old Days, and of the familiar rhyme:

Blood wine and turpentine

That Hector Stein’s no friend of mine

“I know,” she said, “that he founded the Academy eleven years ago, and that he tried to fight the Shroud, and failed.  And I know that he designated you guys as his successors, and so, now, um, here we are?”

Lucifer nodded.  “I am going to tell you some things about Hector Stein, right now, that you are not to tell to any student or teacher.  When I have told you, you will understand why.  I am serious, Cordelia.”

“The Shroud,” Lilith said again, “is not a joke.”

“You said that Hector fought the Shroud, Cordelia.  How do you imagine he did that?”

This seemed like a trick question, because everyone knew the story.  They performed it every year, and it was the biggest event of the school calendar, with a cast roster that served as a trusty barometer for schoolwide popularity.  “He trained everyone really hard, so hard that everyone hated him, but they were all really good mancers, and then when a shade came to tell him they were getting too powerful and had to shut down the school, he held up a mirror and made it look at its own reflection.  And that made the Shroud really angry, and Hector cast a defensive enchantment on the belltower and the whole school took shelter there and fought a huge battle with the Shroud’s shades.  And, uh, they lost.”

“That is what we tell you, yes.”  Lucifer sighed.  “It is a lie, and to anyone who understands the Shroud, it sounds like a joke.  We cannot harm it by mantic force any more than an author can be hurt by the fists of their own characters.”

“But I’ve talked to people who remember it!  Chester, my dorm manager, he used to be a student back then—”

“Chester has a role to play, and when he tells you things like that, he is playing his role.”

Cordelia had nothing to say to this.  She put her face in her hands and sat very still.  The ordering of things was smashed to bits now, the once orderly rungs of every hierarchy now just broken clutter on the floor of her mind.  The Ells had lied, Chester had lied, everyone had lied and would, presumably, continue to lie.  Everyone was lying and everything was suspect, the godsblessed Ells were suspect, everyone, everything.  (Except, said a quiet voice in the back of her mind, for the box.  Except for the box.)

“We’re sorry, Cordelia,” Lilith said.  “And I know that it isn’t enough to say that.  I know that it wouldn’t be enough to say anything.  But look.  You’re in danger, right now, and whether or not you believe me, I care about you.”

And Cordelia found that she did believe her — in no small part because of that “whether or not you believe me” clause.  That frankness, that hard piercing quality, together with that warmth, together in a way that made them somehow the same thing: if she must cling to someone, let it be the Ells.

“So,” she said.  “How did Hector fight the Shroud?”

“Hector Stein was a great man,” Lucifer said, as if this were an answer.  “He was a great man, and a complicated man, and a . . . ”

“. . . a horrible man,” said Lilith.

“Thank you, Lil.  Yes.  I didn’t want to say it, but I have to, I have to say the whole sick godsforsaken thing.  Yes.  He was a horrible man.”  Lucifer leaned forward, brushing some papers out of his way, and there was a bit of the gyroscope in him again, now.  His face was closer to her now, and no longer shadowed by the bookshelf, so that she could see the very pale blue of his eyes and the lines of tension across his brow.

“Hector Stein was a man who saw the Shroud, the force that sustained his life and all our lives in their delicate balance, and said no.  Said, I reject you.  Do you know why mancy is possible, Cordelia?  Because this world of ours is not firm and stable.  It is changeable and it wishes to change.  It is only by a miracle, by endless miracles, moment after moment, that the mantic chaos carves out a place where we can walk, and eat, and shit, and make noises with our mouths.  We demand to do these things, unthinkingly, complacently, hour by hour, day by day.  And the price we pay for this exorbitant demand is the Shroud.

“It is a good story that Hector Stein was a great mantis, and that when we train here, at the Academy, we follow in his footsteps.  It is a story that gives us purpose, and sometimes I think it is the right story, even if it is not the true one.  But the Hector Stein I knew hated being called a mantis.  To him it was a grave insult.  Because he wanted to kill the Shroud, remake the whole world, and that could not be done by force.  Only by tricks, by clever, dirty, awful tricks.  He thought he could fool the Shroud, and then stab it in the back.  Just a man, just a little thing like us that eats and shits and makes noises with its mouth, and thought he could do that.  Of course he failed.  And we are all suffering for it.”

“Lulu,” said Lilith.  Her arm was on Lucifer’s shoulder, her voice concerned.  “Let’s just . . . tell her what she needs to know.  And send her to bed.”

Lucifer nodded, and Cordelia could tell that there was a history behind that nod, a wealth of shared pain, a hundred conversions about Hector Stein on gloomy evenings just like this one, conversations that burned until the fuel ran out and led to nothing.

“The shades are the Shroud’s,” Lucifer said, rocklike and composed again.  “All of them.  Even the ones in your classes.  They are the Shroud’s eyes and we welcome them here.  We are never going to kill the Shroud, never going to fight it again.  We live, and we practice mancy, and we have that delicious orange tea on Saturday mornings, and that is a good life.  I realize that I am arguing with Hector Stein right now, and I am going to stop, because he is not here.  Not dead, by the way, but not here, and none of us are ever going to see him again.

“The box you opened was a comm link, which is short for communication link.  We used to use them to talk to the Shroud — well, I shouldn’t say that, not the Shroud, per se, but — oh, damn it all, okay, we used them to talk to the Shroud back when Hector was still around.  And the Shroud doesn’t like to talk that way anymore, it just uses the shades now, because Hector did some very nasty things when he linked to the Shroud.  An hour or two ago, you yourself used a comm link.  To my knowledge no one’s done that in eight years.  So you see the implications.

“Some shades will take you aside and talk to you, probably tomorrow, probably in the early morning.  How much experience do you have talking with shades?”

Cordelia reflected.  “I was partnered with one in geomancy class once, because, like, things got mixed up and they couldn’t get a shade partner.”

“Did you understand them?”

“It was like talking to a wall.”

“Right.  These ones will be more talkative, but it’s going to be . . . hard.  Shit.”  Lucifer paused to think and burned off nervous energy by moving one hand in frantic circles.  “Uh.  Say as little as possible, but answer when they ask questions.  Try to . . . move as little as possible, too.  Lie down on something if you can, that’s the easiest way.  You’re going to tell them that it was a mistake, of course, but it may take a very long time to get that across.  Be patient.  Make them aware that you know what Lil and I have told you just now.  Deny that you are learning mancy in order to fight, because you aren’t.  Tell them you want everything to stay them same.  Yes, tell them that.  They understand that, things staying the same.”

Lucifer sat back in his chair.  He seemed weary, and Lilith seemed wary.  “You go home now, all right?” she said.  “And come back here the moment the shades are done with you.  I’m sorry about all this.”

Cordelia got up, and was about to leave when something occurred to her.  “You said I was going to be, uh, disciplined?”

That got a smile out of Lilith.  “I think we’ve put you through enough tonight, Cordo.”

 


 

Sleep came late for Cordelia that night.  When she finally slept, after many hours fitfully turning from side to side and configuring her covers every which way, her dreams were inchoate, full of wispy dark shapes that never hardened into anything recognizable.  The one definite thing was a voice, a child’s voice, impish and insistent.  “Lucifer dies,” it said.  Again and again.  Sometimes a boy, sometimes a girl, sometimes neither, but always sing-song, obnoxious, almost mocking.  Lucifer dies.  Lucifer dies.  The voice of a child who has all the candy when you have none, and you can do nothing at all about it.  Rubbing it in.  Lucifer dies.

Upon waking, Cordelia was more perplexed than troubled.  Just a nervous dream, after all, but why that one?  She put it out of her mind, and did what she could to ready herself for the shades.

Chapter Text

Grant walked through an underworld of shady, jagged forms.

He had made himself turn away from the dazzle of the four-way stop, back toward the houses lining the street.  He had checked the number of each house, and as he did so, his internal engine cooled down.  The gears gradually slowed, house by house.  His pupils had expanded, and the red vital blood of his memories had faded to the silver and orange of the Mooncrash, colors not even of dead things but of inanimate ones.

The number he had been given appeared, at last, not on the visible facade of a house but on a high looming fence, a wooden fence, made of rough planks that looked like they could give you splinters.  A part of the fence had been made to swing open on hinges, and he had stepped through into a dark place.  Furtive glances had revealed a tangle of vine and bramble on either side, knotting together above to form a canopy which partially shut out the moon.

There was a narrow path below, made of flat but irregularly shaped stones.  Grant moved step by careful step.  It was so dark that, unless he stopped to look closely at anything, he could not fully make out distinct objects, only a confusion of jagged patches which loomed and then receded.  Branches scraped his arms, and several times he felt the prick of what he could only assume were thorns.

The path continued for what seemed like an unreasonable distance, but then it was difficult to tell how far he had really travelled, with his steps so slow and careful, and with no signposts to divide the gloom.  At last, abruptly, the tunnel ended.  Grant’s hands, which he had held before him the whole way, found themselves touching smooth painted wood.  And now that he had stopped, his eyes could assemble something definite from the moon-colored glints before him: a door.  The same number, 1566, appeared beside the door on what revealed itself to be brick.

He found the handle, and tried it.  The door swung open before him.

He saw several distorted rectangles of moonlight, suspended in a void.  Their shapes, their angles, made him feel immediately at ease.  He was in a house now, yes — and like the house, it had windows, which channelled the moonlight into patterns of illumination on floor, wall, table.  What did we have here?  A large, bare room, with a floor made of long undisguised wooden boards.  Light entering through windows high above — too high to be blocked by the canopy — and making shapes on the floor’s far end.  The floor was visibly dusty.  To his right, a staircase rose into blackness.  The place, to put it mildly, did not look lived-in.

Grant took an experimental step into the room.  Something crunched under his foot.  He put his back to the wall, and edged his way along, planning to crab-walk to the corner between him and the stairway, and then to the stairway itself.

There were arms around him, then, suddenly, arms reaching under his own and pulling them from behind.  This was impossible, Grant realized.  His back had been flat against the wall.  Where had the assailant came from?  But they were definitely here now, reaching, pinning, rendering his arms useless.  He raised a leg and kicked back, hoping for a vulnerable groin.

His adversary cried out and quickly let him go.  He fell forward, caught himself, and whirled.

Before him, against the wall, was a short, emaciated, oldish man.  Late fifties or early sixties, Grant guessed.  The man wore baggy jeans and a wifebeater, and was oddly easy to see, as if his skin were ever so slightly aglow.

Grant closed the gap between him and the man.  He had at least a foot on him, and was far bulkier; he wondered how the man, with his little arms, had been able to restrain him so well.  His hands, acting on reflexes from another life, rushed into place around the man’s neck.

“Who are you?” Grant rasped.

“No,” the man said.

“What?”

The man raised a hand to touch Grant’s left shoulder.  The touch was almost gentle.

A supernova of pain burst through Grant’s shoulder.  He staggered back.  The pain had spikes, spines, it was a star, a starfish, a forking river of magma, a root system, branches, brambles, thorns.  Grant bellowed and gripped his shoulder with his right hand.  What his hand found was nothing like a shoulder.  He pulled it away and saw, under the moonbeams, the color of his pulsing memories.  Blood red.  The slick fluid flowed from his hand in several streams.

“It won’t bleed out,” said the man.  “No death.  Just a gash.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Grant glimpsed a horrible shape.  An arm meeting a cavity.  The absence of a shoulder.  The pain-star beat along with his heart, now, and it was strangely tolerable, perhaps from shock.

“What the fuck,” Grant said.  He was panting, and the words tumbled out in a single breath: what-the-fuck-(inhale).

“You’re a man of gashes, aren’t you, Grant?  I thought that you were a man of gashes.”

I-don’t-und-(inhale).  Und-er-stand-(inhale).

“You move to make violent tearing gashes in flesh.  And your sign-trains make violent tearing gashes toward the motions of your body which make violent tearing gashes in flesh.  And towards the motions too of bullets, which too tear flesh.”

Where’s-the-box-(inhale).

“Your friend Azad formed a sign-train which lurched toward a box.”

You-know-Azad-(inhale).

“Your friend Azad is also a man of gashes.”

The pain had nearly gone, somehow.  In its place was a rising tide of indignation and bile.

“Why the fuck did you just do that to me?” (Inhale.)

“You are a man of gashes, doubly violent: your violent sign-trains aim towards violence.  You came to this place and did violence, and I do not want gashes in my flesh.”

I’m violent?  You just tore off my fucking shoulder!”

 


 

The Dialogue of Grant and the Old Man

Dramatis personae

Grant — a bilateral.

The old man — a shade.

 

The old man: “You are saying that there is a path which begins in my violent tearing action upon your shoulder, and ends with me as a man of gashes, a man violent.”

Grant: “I just walked in here and you tried to tackle me.”

The old man: “The path which ends in me as a man of gashes, a man violent, passes too through other motions of mine, then?”

Grant: “Look, what the fuck is your deal?  Do you want something from me?”

The old man: “I want nothing.  I am merely here, as your friend Azad knew, feeling me here by the fleshrending onrush of his sign-train.”

Grant: “Azad told me to come here and find a box.  You have the box?”

The old man: “Box? Why would I have a box?”

Grant: “Azad told me there was a box here.  And, uh.  You’re here.”

The old man: “Show me the path.”

Grant: “What path?”

The old man: “Do you see it?  You are a man of gashes.  You do violence as you spin your sign-train, which finds no path, yet contrives to move without one.”

Grant: “I don’t understand.”

The old man: “You do not understand because you are violent, a man of gashes.  The bilateral bears the spoils of its violence on its body: it has torn flesh to make an imitation-path, a gross blood-soaked parody-path, from the one arm to the other, the one leg to the other, the one brainpiece to the other.  In its shape it bellows of its awful tearing rending claws.”

Grant: “Bilateral?  That’s what the anomalings called us, in Azad’s translations, right?”

The old man: “That is a sign-train which was crashed, and is crashed no more.  Your capacity for violence grows, now, as the crash weakens.”

Grant: “Are you an anomaling?”

The old man: “I am a shade, the shadow made by an anomaling upon the abominable realm, by which it forms sign-trains in bilaterals.”

Grant: “You don’t want the Mooncrash to end.”

The old man: “It is ending.”

Grant: “Azad said I had to come here, find the box, that the box would make it end, somehow.”

The old man: “Your friend Azad is a man of sign-trains.  With his sign-trains he makes tears and gashes and seems to touch many things.  But without a true path, where can one truly go?  Almost nowhere.”

Grant: “Will you kill us, when it ends?”

The old man: “There are those who would kill you, if you moved uncrashed.  Surely, if you moved without guidance, as your friend Azad would have you do, you would soon meet them, and you would die.”

Grant: “Unguided?”

The old man: “There are those who have moved before you, uncrashed, among us.  If they are not guided in their motions, they move with violence, and do not live long.  If one of us serves as their guide, they may survive.  Some live still, guided.”

Grant: “And . . . will we be guided?”

[The shoulder doesn’t hurt at all, anymore.]

The old man: “I am here to be your guide, Grant.”

Grant: “What about Azad?”

The old man: “Your friend Azad is exceptionally dangerous.  I have said, truly, that you are a man of gashes, but you are a man of gashes by motion only.  Your friend Azad is a man of gashes by sign-train, and that is a greater abomination.  He makes lurid etchings on the skin of everything dear and precious.  His reach is wide and his claws wanton.  One more generous might guide him, but I will not.”

Grant: “You think I’m just going to leave Azad?  When he’s probably going to die?

The old man: “You do not know the marks your friend Azad has made.  You would have wept, to see the damage.”

Grant: [edging toward the door] “I’m not going to leave Azad.”

The old man: [smiling] “I did not expect this behavior!  Fascinating!  Bilaterals can surprise, and that brings joy, even if they only surprise for the worse.  But it is too late.  Grant, do you remember Serena?”

Grant: “My mom?  What does she have to do with any of this crap?”

The old man: “Good, good.  Now Grant.  Did you miss her, these last few years, in the house?  Serena?”

Grant: […]

The old man: “Good.  Stick with me, Grant.  Remember your breathing.  Remember what the nice men told you, deep steady breaths, not too deep, make sure not to stop whatever you do?”

Grant: “There are too many (inhale).  Tubes-in-my-(inhale).”

The old man: “Breathing, Grant!”

Grant: (Inhale)-(exhale)-(inhale)-(exhale)—

Chapter Text

It’s a beautiful fucking morning here on Stein’s Rock.  One of those too-beautiful mornings when the raw sunlight hits the filter bank just right and the resulting rays are better than you’d get with an atmosphere, huge 3D angelic shafts of solid radiance jutting down from the central skylight and giving the whole facility the look of a music video set in Heaven.

Below him, the vast plaza resembles nothing more than a movie set in the early stages of setup (the music video’s still in production, perhaps).  A mostly empty floor dotted with outcroppings where vigorous little figures swarm about half-built structures.  A place where ideals are converted into substance, where dreams do come true — as they do anywhere there is a hand, and a will sufficient to move it.

Hector Stein’s hands are motionless, now, but not from any weakness of will.  He is letting the morning wash over him.  He’s finishing his customary breakfast of instant ramen in energy-drink broth (a delicacy he urges all to try — yes you too — though few have dared).  He is getting amped, and getting amped is something Hector Stein takes very seriously.

A beautiful fucking morning.  Three energy drinks worth of caffeine and ox bile extract and god-knows-what-else surging through his hepatic veins.  Damien Marley on the speakers (searching for the sign and the sign is ussearching for the truth all you find is us —).  On the desk before him, all the sigils of his self-made self: empty ramen containers, great disheveled stacks of paper, technical illustrations in which rectangles of furiously black ink house blazing red circles.  Way off to the left is his trusty original copy of Chester Chrestomath and the Moon Medallion, its cover tattered and torn, its already bulky 622 pages bulging awkwardly against themselves, wavy and rigid from water damage.

His room — do not call it an “office,” please — sits on a raised platform embedded in the high sheer bulkhead.  It has three walls but not a fourth, so he can look out over his desk upon the plaza below.  Before this asteroid had been Stein’s Rock it had been the site of a scientific research station, and the walls still have the pragmatic ugliness of the original design, all bulky white overlapping rectangles, exposed rivets and wires.  But Stein’s put up some decorations, at least.

There, on the left wall, is the monochrome photo of Tsung-Dao Lee, rasterbated to gigantic size and crudely edited so it looks like he’s flipping the bird.  And to his right, there’s one of the many posters featuring Stein himself accompanied by a slogan.  On this one, an imperious Stein points directly at the viewer like Lord Kitchener.  Above him in red block letters is the word

COMMUNICATE

and below him, smaller block letters read

BECAUSE NO ONE KNOWS WHAT THE FUCK YOU’RE THINKING!

Among all such posters, this one is Stein’s favorite, which is why he’s given it pride of place here.  He sees it every day, but seeing it now, with the sunlight splashing a golden gradient across it, he feels a thrill run through him.  Good, he thinks, good, he needs this, needs it to stay with him even through all the dismal shit-shoveling and shamefaced hiding that makes up the bulk of the Stein’s Rock lifestyle — yes, even for him, because no way Hector Stein is ever going to let himself grow soft upon his throne as his people do all the dirty work, no, he prides himself on doing a bit of it all himself, yes perhaps just as a symbolic gesture but symbols have power, and — yes! — “symbols have power” has power, because we are bilaterals and we can take just one thing and see the whole within it, and as Marley’s sign-train blares

Soldiers and police dem wising up, realizing they're no more right than us — Realizing there's no use fighting us — Realizing they’re opening their eyes to see the same demoralizing life as us —

all at once Hector Stein sees in these words the whole of Angel Squadron and knows that yeah, he’s good and fucking amped.

“Good morning, Stein’s Rock!” he yells over the PA.

From the plaza floor, a diffuse and poorly synchronized but spirited reply: “Good morning, sir!”

So, then.  What’s this morning’s first order of business?  Stein glances at a ramen-stained legal pad filled with his angular shorthand.  But before he can get his bearings, he is interrupted by a flashing amber light on his desk-mounted switchboard.  Someone’s here to see him.

Stein feels a twitch of irritation at the distraction.  But he suppresses it.  He leaves himself open to visitors for a reason.  (COMMUNICATE!)  If one of his people abuses this privilege, that is between him and that individual; otherwise, his ears must remain open, without prejudice.  (BECAUSE NO ONE KNOWS WHAT THE FUCK YOU’RE THINKING!)

He taps the button beneath the flashing light, which abruptly cuts Marley off and leaves the room in silence.

“Who is it?”

“Angel Squadron Sgt. A Particular Ice Crystal In A Cirrus Cloud Above Morden Park, London, At A Time Between 5:43 AM And 5:44 AM On September 7, 1725, sir, wishing to consult with you briefly about three matters requiring your official judgment, sir.”

That’s an Angel Squadron name all right, Stein thinks.  Early on, there had been attempts to get the Angels to use abbreviations, but this was one of the many things that made them so uncomfortable as to interfere with their duties.  The names, like so much else, could be easily tolerated, for it was a miracle that the Angels were here at all.

“Understood.  Come in, Sergeant.”

Stein swivels his chair 180 degrees to face the opening door.  Before him is a short, hobbitish man clad in the biker jacket and chaps that comprise the Angel Squadron uniform.  A great mop of curly red-brown hair frames his pudgy, pock-marked face.  He looks uneasy in that way Angels always look uneasy, like he’s overwhelmed by having so many muscles that can be moved in so many different ways, most of them ill-advised.

“What do you have for me, Sergeant?”

“Three things, sir.  In which order shall I relate them to you, sir?”

“I can’t tell you that until I know what the things are, Sergeant, and I won’t know that until you relate them.”

“Then we are at an impasse, sir.”

Stein sighs indulgently.  It’s a miracle they’re here at all, he reminds himself.  He fumbles around in a mental attic for a moment, looking for the right words, the ones least likely to lead them further into the brambles of semantics.

“Tell me the one you learned about first.”

“Of course, sir.  Approximately four hours ago, I was told that the Stein’s Rock Players are unsure whether they can prepare this year’s Celebratory Concert on schedule.”

“What seems to be the problem?”

“I was told that one of the soloists has pneumonia, sir.”

“That’s a shame.  But my concert will happen on schedule, pneumonia or no pneumonia.”

“Certainly, sir.  But the Players would like your advice on how to proceed.  The soloist in question has the highest vocal range on the Rock, and a crucial aria had been written for her specifically.  The Players, sir, are especially concerned about the role of this aria in the emotional arc of the entire composition.  Were she to be replaced by a less skilled performer—”

“Forget it.  If we can’t do what we planned, we won’t settle for a pale imitation.  Pick a new performer and write a new aria.”

“I will relate your instructions to the Players, sir.  But in light of what I have been told about the significance of this aria, I expect they will have trouble selecting a vocalist with the requisite talent.”

“Talent is one way to make an impact, but not the only one.  How about we do something new, something shocking?  How about you sing the aria?”

“I cannot sing, sir.”

“Well, you’d better learn!”

“The aria, as currently written, celebrates the daring spirit of a bilateral in lone rebellion against her crash.  With all due respect, sir, I do not see how I, not being a bilateral at all, could capture this spirit.”

“Then don’t.  Capture your daring spirit.”

“Is my spirit daring, sir?”

“Tell me, Sergeant.  How did you come to join the Squadron?”

“Defection, sir.  I had been sent as a procedural shade to CC-Crash 03β, and my eyes were opened through dialogue with an agent of Whisper Squadron, whose persistent patience in the face of my shadely obstinance still fills me, sir, with an awe verging on disbelief.”

Hector Stein has a whole repertoire of specific facial and bodily gestures he can call up on demand, as if pressing buttons on a rhetorical soundboard.  He now activates one of his favorites, a downward tilt of the head that automatically intensifies his gaze, accompanied by a very slight smile, a smile of mastery, just one shade of benevolence away from being a sneer.

“So you became a traitor to your people.  Discarded everything you had known, and been.  In the name of a belief.”

“Indeed, sir.”

“Sounds like you’ve got plenty of daring spirit.”

“I take your meaning, sir.”

“Good.  I can’t wait to hear your aria.”  Stein actually rubs his hands together in excitement, here, and this gesture’s not from the soundboard, it’s fully spontaneous and surprises even him.  “Now, what was the second thing you came to tell me?”

“Another journalist wants an interview with you, sir.  I’ve looked into him, and his prestige rating on the social web is 97th percentile.  He’s willing to meet all our security requirements and appears equipped to do so.”

Stein suppresses a laugh.  “Is he an idiot?”

The Angel’s discomfort ratchets up a perceptible notch.  “I am . . . I am sorry, sir.  I have tried, with unflinching effort, to find a path which beg- . . . excuse me, I mean, to understand this sign, ‘idiot,’ as used by you, sir, but I confess that my efforts are ongoing and inconclusive.”

“Don’t worry about it.”  From the soundboard, a reassuring brush of the hand, a minute relaxation of the shoulders that bumps Stein’s vibe a few percentage points towards chill.  “Any idea what he wants to talk to me about?”

“He mentioned your erstwhile association with the infamous Geometric Brotherhood, sir.”

“He’s an idiot.  Might be worth it for optics, but I’m too fucking busy.  Tell him I politely decline, convey my best regards et cetera et cetera.”

Hector Stein has been actively seeking out unsavory associates for longer than he can remember.  Occasionally they are actually useful.  But useful or useless, they always swell Stein’s reservoirs of squid ink, to be squirted whenever the need arises.  If you set out to dig up dirt on Hector Stein, you will find an embarrassment of riches — a hundred sordid trails to follow, a hundred different blemishes on Stein’s reputation to be investigated, analyzed, pored over for hints as to the dark truth behind the luminous facade of Stein’s Rock.  A hundred dead ends, which will keep the best and brightest distracted and oblivious forever, while in the meantime Stein keeps on doing the same damn thing he’s been doing this whole time.

“Of course, sir.”

“So about that third thing you’re here for.”

On the Angel’s face, a whole new flavor of discomfort.  “Well, sir,” he begins, and then his eyes glaze over with the effort of condensing into sign-train some particularly ineffable blob of Angelic thought-fluid.

“We now occupy one vertex of a spacelike-path-connected triad of . . . sorry, um . . . there has been an . . . an unexpected conjunction of events.

“Half an hour ago, we received a transmission from Earth.  The Wolf Squadron unit there is reporting operational success.  Their latest metrics indicate rapid thawing activity in the Project Mooncrash facility.”

“Fuck yeah!” Stein bellows, his fist raised in victory, and while all of this is standard soundboard material, Stein’s so amped right now that the distinction between Stein the man and Stein the myth, between rallying the troops and rallying the self, has all but melted away.  “We did it!  We fucking did it!  The crash that can’t be thawed, they said, and we fucking thawed it.”

“Indeed, sir.  But there is a . . . complication.  We have also just received news of an unexpected outbound request from another crash.  This request used highly privileged credentials and was . . . sir, the request was accepted, and resulted in a communication call that lasted 33 seconds before the other end hung up.”

“That wasn’t us, was it?”

“No, sir.”

“Then how the hell did they get those credentials?”

“That’s the thing, sir.  The credentials were your own.  The request came from CC-Crash 09μ.  Your origin crash.

In moments like these Stein is a maestro at the soundboard, and in this one he chooses to appear coolly alert, a sleek predator in his element.  Behind this facade, as always, is a landscape dense with underbrush, with hidden nooks and trails.  One such trail ends in a shadowy grotto hiding a deep pool, usually stagnant.  Now it roils, as long unused memories burble to its surface.

“Any news on the response?”

“No, sir.  But in my former life I was a part of such matters, and I expect there is by now an investigation, and it will almost certainly end in a decision to rebase the crash.”

“And,” Stein says, “I imagine it will not escape their notice that a certain Hector Stein is still at large after ascending from that very crash, and just might have something to do with the incident that just happened on Earth.”

“I have heard that that very concern voiced many times this morning, sir.”

“Fuck,” Stein mutters, his eyes downcast and perplexed.  (This too is soundboard.  In the grotto, whorls of muck arrange themselves into lithe, purposeful currents.)

“Do we know anything,” he says at last, “about the person who sent the request?”

“We have ID, sir.  Never heard of her before.  As far as we know, just another crashed bilateral among billions.”

The little almost-sneer smile again.  “You know, I’d love to see that place again.  They’ve always been my Ells, those ones, you know.”

“Sir!  Do you mean to say you’re going to . . . what do they call it . . . ‘do your Morpheus thing’?  In CC-Crash 09μ?

The motley crew of Stein’s Rock have never been able to resist this turn of phrase, not least because Hector Stein does look eerily like Laurence Fishburne. 

“I just might.  You know what, I just might.”

Chapter Text

Grant’s eyes are, technically speaking, open.  But you and I cannot see through them, not just yet.

You see, our Grant has not yet even noticed that his eyes are open.  To notice such trifles he would have to divert some smart part of himself away from the struggle which, for now, requires every resource of his being.  It is the complex and profound struggle of a man forced to witness, to comprehend, and finally to bear that which his very soul recoils against — that which must not be, and yet is.  A struggle which has seen our Grant fast-forward his way madly through all the classic stratagems, through denial, anger, bargaining.  A struggle forced on him by a sense more powerful than sight, more primal, closer to the heart of all matters.

Yes, before he can see, Grant must first come to terms with the smell.

It is overpowering.  Grant may later attempt to describe it, but if so, he will fail.  Until now, he has never needed recourse to anything more than the usual compendium of handy comparisons for bad odors.  “It smells like shit in there,” he might say, or “piss,” or “vomit.”  This smells like all three, and more, but what’s missing from these formulas is the sheer intensity, which Grant has no idea how to communicate in mere words, and wouldn’t want to if he could.

To distract himself, he begins to wonder if maybe Azad could describe it.  Azad would take it as a challenge, surely, and bring all his powers to bear upon the problem with gusto.  But Azad’s powers were forged in the seminar room and the well-upholstered study, and though his gaze might sometimes turn to dirt and muck and small slithering things, it glimpsed them only from a great height.  Perhaps, then, it could only be done by the two of them together.  Grant’s imagination, working in overdrive to conjure new escapes faster than the stench can envelop them, latches onto this premise with glee: they would be a duo of poet-warriors striding across a mythic landscape, identifiable even from great distances by their unique heraldic dress (Grant sporting a medieval elaboration of the dark baseball cap and shades he wore on the job, Azad a massive mortarboard and priestly-academic robes), regaling jaded kings and misty hamlets with the story, their only story, inimitable and ever growing in renown, the story of the smell.

Was Azad going to be all right?  Maybe Azad was already dead.  Maybe Grant would prefer to think about something other than this subject.  Unfortunately, there is another subject all too eager to force itself upon his consciousness.  Grant realizes he’s been holding his breath.  Grant wants to scream, but you need air in your lungs to scream.  Grant thinks of nothing, of mom and dad and sis on a family road trip, of certain no-scope kills that attained legendary status among his gaming squad, of the Mooncrash, of that room in the basement of the house he especially liked, the one with all the plumbing and the big water heater (so easy to just stay in that room without leaving, for hours, for days? a week? a month? the memories are already distant), and then he doesn’t think at all because the breath is rushing in and with it the smell, which he really hasn’t overcome at all, has he?  Every breath has been like this and every one hence will be like this too.  It’s only in the blessed interval between breaths that he can imagine he’s made progress, reached some new frontier of acceptance or negotiation.

Usually when a place smells bad you try to get out of it.  This insight hits Grant out of nowhere, and he’s honestly baffled how it had escaped his notice thus far.  A whole new paradigm, forget everything you knew, time to play by the rules of the new economy, and Grant’s 100% game for it.  Phrases from some long-forgotten business class float unexpectedly into his consciousness.  The professor was always saying new economy, and paradigm, and dynamic, and Web 2.0.  Grant readies himself to move, to dynamically extricate himself from this whole mess, an ambition that in his semi-delirious state feels, for some reason, subtly and profoundly linked to the phrase Web 2.0.  And as Grant, titan of the new economy, begins his grand Web 2.0 adventure by telling his left leg to take a step forward, one small step for man —

— nothing happens.

He can’t move.

That’s probably why he hadn’t moved earlier, he realizes belatedly.  The wise Grant of 10 seconds ago steps in to lecture the prodigy of the present.  Grave lessons from the old economy, still relevant to the young.  He’s overdue for another breath.  At least his nostrils don’t have those awful, invasive, penetrating tubes in them anymore.  Tubes?  But there are tubes right in front of him.  Were those always there?  Are there two of them, or four?  He can make them move, closer together or further apart.  He’s seeing double, he realizes.

He’s seeing.

He’s seeing the facility.  White walls, white paint over stone bricks, with irregularities of texture still perceptible from a distance.  No, but now it’s not all white, there are patches of the wall that look like the good old facility but then elsewhere it’s covered with that shiny rainbow goop — oh no.  A frisson of fear rises from Grant’s gut up through his shoulders and up to the top of his head, and then it’s gone, like some radio pulse he’s sending into space.  There’s another one.  They keep coming, and he realizes they’re coming with his heartbeat, a fast heartbeat he can feel thumping in his chest.  He welcomes this feeling, for it is a feeling that begins in his stomach and yet it is not nausea.  His belly has embraced the new economy at last.  But that goop —

— the end, that was the goop from the end, blaring klaxons all through the day and night that wouldn’t let him sleep, the rainbow slime was all over the walls and they wouldn’t let you touch it or touch anyone who’d touched it, and Grant was in charge of enforcing this new doctrine, but it was so hard when you hadn’t slept and you were in the bathroom and the goop was climbing onto the urinals and you stood there, wondering if you could piss, wondering if the corrupting touch of the anomalings could climb into you across a stream of urine, wondering this for minutes? hours? it’s hard to tell when you haven’t slept in days, and this was too much, not what you signed up for when you took the job, you know, and you were even then yearning for Mooncrash without knowing it, yearning for the house with its grey tones and no rainbows, not ever.

And isn’t that a bit of goop right in front of him now?  Isn’t that a lot of goop, a big collected mass of it, not on the walls but right there in front of him, levitating, a levitating goopball not a foot away?  And hadn’t he been warned about exactly this very sight, on slide 13 of some insane Powerpoint there quite close to the end, with a helpful animation of just what a levitating goopball would look like, with those pulsing undulations on its surface, yes, just those ones?  And isn't the voice he is hearing now a familiar voice?

“Attentional response to aural stimulus registered,” says the old man.  “This is very good, Grant.  Your ears still work.”

When the old man speaks, the rainbow goopball’s surface undulates with smooth waves, like a lake stirred by a tranquil breeze.  When he stops speaking, it is still, a perfect sphere.

“Saccades are tracking external stimuli with only mild nystagmus.  All extraocular muscles appear functional.  You are alive, Grant.  I welcome you back to your home.”

Grant tries to say something, and manages to sort of get his mouth halfway open.  He retches.  His head has moved forward, and this changes everything.  The world is spinning.  Before his eyes, only a blur, seen uselessly in duplicate.

“It is necessary that you be cleaned immediately.  This apparatus was not correctly prepared for biological steady state and a large heterogenous mass of bacteria has been permitted to accumulate within the chamber, which will soon endanger your life.  Additionally, this apparatus has been recently altered, and bounds can no longer be placed on its functionality.  Grant, your muscles have atrophied and you can no longer move on your own.  Allow me to assist.  I am to be your guide hereafter.”

Something in front of Grant shifts, and he falls forward, right onto the floor.  A splitting pain wracks his forehead.  He cannot see and cannot move.  A minute passes, or two, or twenty.

Warm water rushes over his back.  He perceives this, initially, as a great shriek that splits the universe in twain.  Then there is liquid in his lungs, and he coughs it up, and it is out of him, never to return.  The water flows over him continually, a warm bath, and he can breathe.  He feels accomplished.  He has made it, at last, to the new economy.  And this warmth around him, this accommodating pool, buoying him up and coursing gently around his limbs?  Perhaps this is what Web 2.0 feels like.

Then, for a very long time, nothing.

 


 

“You are awake, Grant.”

He is awake, and he is seated on a couch, one of several in a familiar conference room.  Straight in front of him is a wall-mounted 4K monitor.  He must have watched a hundred very boring presentations on that screen, back when he worked here.

The wall is almost entirely covered in rainbow goop — a substance with the consistency of sap and the shine of a soap bubble — but it has left the monitor alone.  Around the screen there is an amorphous splatter of white wall, the halo left by the absence of goop.  Here and there a tendril of goop extends further into the halo, only to splinter into a chaotic mess of thin goopy vines, wrapping back outwards toward their source.

Grant feels like a million bucks.  Body full of calm energy, a post-workout sort of charge.  No noticeable hunger, thirst or discomfort.  He experimentally instructs his left foot to edge forward along the floor, and it complies.

“Yeah, I guess I’m awake.”

“Very good, Grant.”  The goopball floats into view from his right, moving slowly through the air in a perfectly straight line and then, all at once, stopping decorously so it doesn’t obstruct his view of the screen.  It looks fake, momentumless, unrealistically smooth and reflective, like a tacky CGI creation from some low-budget sci-fi thriller.

“Grant,” it says, and its surface shimmers with ripples that might, or might not, somehow encode his name.  It still has that old man’s voice.

“It is now time to show you certain things.  In the course of this educational experience, it will become necessary to make motions with your body, and so it has been arranged for this to be possible.  As your guide, I must inform you that these arrangements will not persist.”

Grant says nothing.  He remembers being told that if he saw one of these things, his life would be over.  Perhaps this is an afterlife, or some transitory stage in between.  Perhaps the goopball is his ferryman to the underworld.  Many things are possible, but Grant feels sure that in some sense it has all ended, life, Mooncrash, all of it.  There is nothing left to do.

“Now your education will begin.”

The monitor flickers on.  In a small box, wreathed by the rainbows of the end, there is a picture:

“This is your earth, Grant.  The center of the abominable realm, your home.  You see it here from a distance, as your astronauts did, and upon it, you see the meridians and parallels of your navigators.  It is familiar to you, is it not, Grant?  You recognize your habitat.  You have moved from position to position upon it, before.  Using footfalls to move in the direction of the head, and perhaps in your cars, or in your airplanes?”

Grant sits motionless for a number of seconds before he realizes that the goopball apparently wants a response to this question.

“Yeah,” he says, throwing a little corkscrew turn of sarcasm into his tone, why not, it’s the end of everything anyway.  “I’ve ‘moved’ on ‘my earth’ in ‘my airplanes.’  Sure, E.T.  I’m a normal human man, I move on my earth in my airplane like every fucking day.  Do you want me to take you to my leader now?”

“Such leaders as you may have had, Grant, have already been taken into account.”  This is said pleasantly, as if it is meant to be reassuring.  But then the old man voice grows sterner:

“Grant, it is important that you pay attention to your education.  I have chosen to guide you.  If you do not receive this lesson properly, you will not be able to move in an appropriate manner, and you will quickly die.”

“Okay.  And if I do listen?  I won’t die?  What will happen then?”

“That cannot be conveyed accurately until a later stage in your education.  Is it not enough to tell you that paying attention, now, will make the difference between life and death?  Have I misunderstood the importance, to the bilateral, of evading death?  If so, Grant, I am dearly sorry for the failure to bridge our minds.”

Something changes in Grant.  Something breaks, perhaps.  He laughs out loud, and slouches back in the couch — say what you will about the facility, they have some hella comfortable couches!  So this is the end.  What the hell.  He’ll make the most of it.  Relax in this hella comfortable couch, watch some nature documentaries with his new alien buddy, whatever.  This is the new economy, and Grant is willing to give it a try.  Why not?

“Yeah, no.  Totally.  We bilaterals, we’re all about evading death.  That’s like, all we talk about, man.”

“I am glad, then, that our minds have not in this respect failed to bridge.  Now, Grant.  You are familiar with moving on your earth, you say.  I would like to tell you a story, and after completion of this sign-train, we will see how well you know this act of moving upon your earth.”

The screen shifts:

“In my story, Grant, you live among your fellows in a land at the equator of your earth.  One day, your fellows decide to send an exploring party, counting you among its number, to the north.  With luck, your party will reach the northernmost point of your earth.  But you will bring with you, across the whole hard journey, an unchanged sign of your people: a shining spear.  You see it here, this beautiful spear.”

“Sure, I see it.  Real beautiful.  I fucking love arrows.”

“Wonderful, Grant.  You will be happy to hear, then, that you yourself receive a great honor: you are designated the spear-bearer.  You take up the spear, and hold it in the sacred direction, a direction that is your people’s shining sign.  Your task is to carry this spear step by step, and never let it swerve from that sacred direction.  If you happen to be walking in the sacred direction — as you are now, setting out on your journey — you must hold the spear out before you, pointing your way further into the uncharted dark.  If you turn and walk in a new direction, you must adjust the spear in its harness, so that it counter-swerves and its sacred direction is unsullied.”

The screen shifts again:

“Your band is successful, and you carry your spear all the way to the north pole.  Some of your band die in the journey, and you bury them in accordance with your custom, but you, spear-bearer, live to see the pole.”

“Sweet.  I high-five a polar bear.”

“The bear’s paw makes contact with yours, right-hand structure upon right-paw structure or left- upon left-, bilateral recognizing bilateral.

“And now, having reached the inhospitable north, your party follows its next command from the elders of your people: not to return home, but to explore further, to a distant equatorial land.  And along this route too, you are to bear the spear.  As you depart from the pole along another meridian, you take care to adjust the spear in its harness, so it still points in the sacred direction, which now extends not proudly before you, but just as proudly to your left.”

The screen shifts again:

“You arrive, Grant, you and the lucky few who have survived along with you, and a few neonates who were born along the way, suckled at the teats of the females among you, right-hand structure to your male left-, or left- to your right-.  All the way, you have borne the unchanging spear, a proud sign of your heritage.”

“Yeah, I get it.”

“But Grant!  Unbeknownst to you, a second band has been dispatched from your ancestral home, towards the same new land you now find yourself exploring!”

The screen shifts again:

“They have a spear-bearer of their own.  He bears the same spear, as unswerving in his duty as you were in yours, but he carries it along the path of his band, not yours.  An equatorial path, not a polar one.  As he walks east along the equator, the spear sits comfortably in his harness, pointing always to his left.”

The screen shifts again:

“And Grant!  They arrive!  Your rival bears the spear of your people!  He says it has not changed, never, though their journey was long!  And you, you say the same of your own spear!  And yet the spears — are they the same?!

“No, they’re, like, pointing in different directions.”

In this rainbow chamber, the afterlife’s waiting room, a long awkward pause.

“Yeah, now that you mention it, that’s kinda trippy.  Like, the arrow ends up pointing a different way depending on how you got there?”

“The path, Grant!  You see!  Take one path, and your spear points the one way.  Take another, and it points another way.  Two spears!  Are they the same spear?  Are they the spear of your people, the ancestral sign, never changing, identical everywhere?  Or are they not?  Without a path, there is no answer!  Without a path, no sameness or difference!  And what are you, Grant?  What are the bilaterals you know, and their signs and sign-trains?  Are they never changing, identical everywhere?”

Another long awkward pause.

Grant’s education has only begun.

Chapter Text

It had been a silent day, an utterly still day.  This, Cordelia knew, was the day’s true nature.  A still day in spite of the morning and its anxious pacing, a silent day even in spite of the extended verbal tennis that followed.  A still and silent day even in spite of the train tracks.

As much as they might put on airs, none of her visual metaphors, not even the treasured ones about light and its absence, could ever escape their homeland, a small rectangular region somewhere near the back of her head, close to the neck.  It was there that they were born, there that they died, and there that she saw them prance about for her amusement and edification.  When she daydreamed, or considered possible futures, she could make this cranial stage appear as large as the whole world, but only by peering so close that everything else disappeared from view.  The actors were still ants, their ancestral town still smaller than a shoebox.

Today the town had been overrun by trains.  Jump and wave they might, but none of her favorite ants — the ants who had linked their bodies together to portray the Five Fundamental Geomantic Chains (a lifesaver in the hardest class she’d ever taken), or the ones who had brokered a difficult truce with the glowworms, so that light itself could dance in her mind — none of them could catch her eye, because their little town was criss-crossed with train tracks now, and the trains towered above them.

They were functional trains, in good working order, and Cordelia knew that they had moved and would move.  Indeed, whenever her attention strayed from the sights and sounds before her, she saw the trains and their journeys, bearing people and cargo forward and backward and sideways, and she knew that soon she would get onto one of them, and be borne herself, to a destination not of her choosing, to wherever she was supposed to be.  (Not here.)  But all of this motion was definitively fixed in the past or the future, journeys completed, journeys scheduled.  There was so much motion, but none of it was happening now.  Now all was still, and the tracks were heavy in their stillness.

Cordelia, alone in her dorm room, was for once at a complete loss.  There were things, perhaps, which she had intended to do at the start of the day.  But she knew now that the trains were ready, waiting for her, waiting for the appointed time, when she would board with a smile, telling herself that travel was good for the soul.

She knew she had gotten behind in several classes, even before she’d found the box.  There was so much more to learn in the Catacombs, after all, than in Mrs. Purseslen’s course notes, meticulously arranged into sub-sub-subsections like some piece of expensive topiary, or the senile scribbles of Mr. Snoddery, who, it was rumored, had been a close ally of Hector Stein and now kept his job only through the good grace of institutional nostalgia.  But doing homework, she felt, would be an act of hiding.  The shades had told her that there would be a change, and then that the change would always have been, and so there would have been, in the end, no change.  She did not want to look away from the change to come.  She would await her train with a smile and a good word for the conductor, something about the pleasures of the open air, and she would not cling to the daily trivia of this tiny place, this dusty old shoebox.

It had scared her at first, what the shade had said.  But when she went to see the Ells, she knew it was true, and knew she must accept it.  Into the Headmaster’s Office she strode, then, Cordelia the brave, as on any other day.  The Headmaster’s Office received her, with its stillness and silence.  Lucifer and Lilith Vance were personable, if brief, and responded helpfully to her inquiries and plaints about the two hours of absurdist theater the shades had put her through.  “Just these meaningless exchanges, on and on, like something out of Stoppard,” and they nodded appreciatively, yes, that’s just it, our star pupil shines again.  She found her monologue running aground more quickly than she had expected, the morning’s exasperations suddenly without force, and when she fished for the next thing to say and came up blank, the Ells smiled and said some appropriate words and sent her on her way.

They had seemed different, hadn’t they?  This question emerged again in the midst of her aimless evening thoughts.  They had, Cordelia admitted to herself, grudgingly, with a little twitching motion as if to physically thrust her irritation off into the stale dorm-room air.  It was a frivolous point.  Not the sort of thing that matters.  In the back of her head, she saw the Ells on their own train, waving to her out the window, as they sped off (had sped off, would speed off, have always sped off) to their appointed destination.  They deserved to make it in the big city, didn’t they?  Not to be trapped forever herding children, in this quaint Ren Faire snowglobe.  The Ells were off to their city, and she wished them well, and hoped they would benefit from not having to deal with her anymore.  She would be off in her own appointed place, far away.

Cordelia was in the bathroom.  She had been here for some time, possibly.  She emerged from visions of the trains to see her hands, a sink, the wood wall, the rustic gloom of candlelight.  Why was so much of the Academy lit by actual flame, when mantic lamps were cheap, brighter, and so much safer?  This was the sort of bracingly exotic thought that reached her only by rail.  She had received many shipments of such cargo today, but it had been difficult to find anything like gratitude inside her still, silent self.

Looking up, she saw a face in what she knew was a mirror, and she supposed she must accept this as her own face.  Another sensation shipped in from the big city: hating her own face again.  No one would invite her to the Balls, or cast her in the Steinomachy, because she was special, chosen, her name whispered by instruments of fate in the Catacombs.  Or, more plausibly: no one would invite her to the Balls, or cast her in the Steinomachy, because of this, with its beady eyes, its permanent scowl, its flabby jawline, its double chin.  Did the instruments of fate ever choose a face like this?  Only in idle fantasies, and in cruel jokes.

In a fugue of commingled indifference and pain, Cordelia walked, out of the bathroom, out of the dorm, into the halls of the Academy.  There was no one in them at this late hour, no people anyway, but her paranoiac eyes kept warning her that the fine differences in coloration on some dim patch of wall might be not wall, but shade.  Once or twice, she was even right.  She saw the shade, and the shade saw her, and it went on its unfathomable business, while she went onward, with heavy turgid footfalls, on no business at all.

A wide and picturesque staircase, abutting a wall, led down to the first floor, into Main Hall.  The big window was high up on the same wall.  Tonight the moon was high and clear and bright, and it filled Main Hall with a haunted light that made Cordelia stop in her tracks.  The walls of Main Hall were blue, fashioned out of some gemstone or other in interlocking polygon shapes whose beauty none of the busy students, except chosen Cordelia, ever stopped to appreciate.  Under the moonlight, Main Hall was a buffet of deep blues and wistful whites.  The air was filled with dust — always there even in these well-used halls, to give the atmosphere the right wizardly touch — and the swirling motes made solid columns out of moonlight.

Cordelia sat down upon one of the final steps.  Her feet touched the floor of Main Hall.  She was crying.  These sobs, she realized in retrospect, had been building steadily for hours, and at last they had found their moment of release, in this perfect place, under high gothic arches, among moonbeams.

She looked up, and though the tears blurred her vision, she knew the scene.  The Academy in all its faux-medieval finery.  A girl alone.  She weeps.  Does no one understand her?  There is no one there to comfort her, but the scenery responds.  The full moon has come out to bathe her tear-stained cheek in its soft yet bright light.  Enough light to see her by, but not so much that there are not deep blue shadows all around her, the mirrors of her fragile, shadowed soul.  The ceiling is high enough to add reverb to her every emotive noise.

She thought: I should be singing opera.

She thought: I definitely have the frame for it, anyway.

Sometimes you do have these fantasies.  But the line between a fantasy and a joke, thought Cordelia, is always thin.  She was starting to get the joke, and starting to tire of it.

Sometimes you do have these fantasies.  Sometimes in the fantasies Chester kisses you in the heavy dusk of a Main Hall alcove, and sometimes he goes on to do more.  And then, in other fantasies, sometimes Chester is but a side character, and it is not his name but yours that the instruments of fate whisper in the darkness.  Your name that the Ells mutter, amongst startled laughter, taken aback yet again.  Then other things happen, or don’t.  Choose your own adventure.

But in the end you’re just the ugly girl with the funny name, and nothing else special about her, and when you cry it is just crying, not weeping.  And the fantasies don’t look right, with you in the middle of them.  They have the structure of a schoolyard taunt.  (Hey Cordo, wanna be my date to the Gloaming Ball?  Hey Cordo, wanna leave this life and learn mancy at the Academy?  Oh, you thought I was serious.)

Cordelia could see clearly, in her mind, the train track stretching back into the new past, heading right through town and on into the new future.  In the new past, as in the old past, she had made a big mistake.  In the new past, the Ells — magnanimous as always, in any past or future — had forgiven her, and allowed her to stay at the Academy, which she knows full well is small as a shoebox, a fitting hole for her far smaller spirit.  In the new future, she wakes up grateful every day.

If it has to be a fantasy, why does it always have to be this one?  Can’t there be a train to some other fake town, some other tourist trap that hasn’t outworn its welcome?

Cordelia wanted to scream.  To pound her big useless fists against the beautiful walls.  But she knew that escape route had already been blocked.  The room was ready for any and every permutation of the melodramatic heroine schtick.  The moonlight would shine ever so prettily upon her quaking body.  No.

There was only one way to escape.

The box!

The box, she knew, would not try to prettify her wretchedness.  The box would paint her wretchedness in true colors, and she would sigh with relief: reality at last.  Granted, this was exactly what got her in so much trouble, and what she was not ever supposed to repeat.  But she was wretched and ugly, and opening the box again was a wretched and ugly thing to do.  And the box would agree!  It was a perfect chain, every link supporting the next.

The box had still been there, on Lucifer’s desk, when she’d gone back to see the Ells today.  That was curious, wasn’t it?  Why was Lucifer leaving such a dangerous thing on his desk, for any visiting student to see?  So many things around her did not make sense, and each one made her see train tracks leading into some foggy, unknown realm.

She was moving fast, purposefully, Cordelia the brave again.  Her mind buzzed with questions and plans and maps and trains.  The Headmaster’s Office would be locked at this time of night, but for some reason this did not seem like an obstacle worth worrying over.  There were ways, for the special and chosen, to do anything they pleased in the Academy.

She reached the door, and tested it.  Locked, as expected.  She watched a train recede sideways through time, into some past, not the old past and not the new.  She crab-walked three steps to the right, knocked twice on a blank patch of wall, and then recited the password, a melodious snatch of Old Mantic.  There was the clunk of ancient machinery, and the wall parted before her eyes.  A secret passage.  How had she known about it?  Because Chester had used it, and she remembered everything Chester had ever done.

It was pitch black inside the passage, but she remembered its shape, and could find her way without even needing to touch the walls.  Her plans reached their completions with a dreamlike rapidity.  Here was the Office, laid out before her, dim under glancing moonlight.  The desk, the box.

In a final gesture of irreverence, she sat down in Lucifer’s big, ornate chair.  It was not very comfortable.  Why would Lucifer Vance, of all people, tolerate an uncomfortable chair in his own office?  It was as if the world was arranged to be seen and touched only in certain ways, and revealed its shoddy artifice the moment a spoilsport visitor strayed from the script.

When she opened the box this time, it was different.

 


 

She was a shrivel still, and there was still space around her, but the space was far vaster.  She was a single geometric point, suspended in an ocean.  An ocean bigger than the whole earth.

She was pointedly aware, this time, of the insufficiency of words.  She did think the word ocean, just then, but she knew it did not even begin to describe what she felt around her.  This time, though she was a mere point, the ocean did not recoil at her touch.  It caressed her with feelings and ideas, and there were no words for these either.

But she cannot look back on the experience, now, and remember it truly, without words.  When she remembers it now, she remembers the words she would later learn for this feeling, the words used to designate it in the lingo of Blackhat Squadron:

Login successful.  Welcome back, Administrator.  You may now access the interactive rebase console.

The ocean opened its secrets in a rush to her eyes and ears and fingers and tongue and other senses she had no names for.  Train tracks dispersed in an infinitude of directions, and she could follow any of them as far as she wished in an instant.  As she followed one track she saw the thing she called herself grow smaller and younger and less wise, until at the end it had become an infant, knowing nothing of friends or world.  This bawling, ignorant thing was Cordelia, too, was it?  Just the same as her?  She saw the insufficiency, now, of this word “Cordelia.”

Other tracks connected the Ells she knew to things she did not know.  She saw the insufficiency of the words “Ells,” “Lucifer,” “Lilith.”

The whole of the Academy was a drop in the ocean, smaller than a shoebox indeed, and she could move in any direction and see it change, step by step, into something else.  There were many other things that were called the Academy, but they were not the Academy she knew.  What use was this word, “Academy”?

In a flash she knew that she could change it all.  A push in any direction, and the Academy would slide along some appointed track and become something else entirely.  Choose your own adventure.

But how could she, a shrivel, a point, know the ways of the tracks?  Know how to move in the fullness of the ocean?  Any plan of motion she might devise would have its origin in words.  She could speak only in words, but she was asked to speak in worlds.

She screamed, no!  But that was a word, too!

She screamed and screamed that there must have been some mistake.  This wretched, shriveled thing, which called itself by the word “Cordelia” because it did not even know itself, was not worthy of this great responsibility.  A case of mistaken identity, surely.  Where was the sleek, swimming ocean-dweller who was meant to see this?

The ocean heard her screams then, and honored them, though they were only words.  Everything outside the shoebox vanished.  Gradually, her eyes adjusted to see things on the scale of ants rather than oceans.  Before her was a desk, and on the desk was a box.  She gingerly replaced its lid.

Before her, too, was a face she had only seen before in reverent portraits hung high on Academy walls.

“Hello, Cordelia,” said Hector Stein.

“You’re . . . ”  She wasn’t even sure what she intended to say.  Several possibilities presented themselves.  How strange, to sling words back and forth with a being you wrongly call by a name, as both of you float, isolated points in an ocean.

“Yes.  I am Hector G. Stein, founder of this school.  I’ve come back, because this place needs me.”

“They . . . the Ells said you . . . that we’d never see you again.”

“The Ells,” Stein said with a devilish glint in his eye, “are wonderful people, but they have never had any fucking clue what I was up to.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I used your box.  And then I used it again, because I’m just that much of a fuck-up.”

Hector Stein smiled, a Cat-in-the-Hat smile: don’t you see, children, that life does not stop the moment you disobey your parents?

“You aren’t a fuck-up, Cordelia, and I say that as someone who knows a thing or two about fucking up.  This Academy has been in a sorry state since I left.  You’re right to be angry, and you’re right to go looking for answers.  So many students, and you’re the only one looking in the Catacombs, following my tracks.  They put on that stupid play in my honor every year, but the only thing in this sad place that makes me feel honored anymore is when a student like you decides to fuck some shit up.”

Special, chosen, Cordelia the brave!

“Now,” said Hector Stein, tall and imposing, making slow certain steps toward the desk.  “I would love to make small talk, but there is something I have to do as soon as possible.  You have my comm link.  You’ve seen what it can do.”

Hector Stein picked up the box in one assured motion, and held it casually, as if there were no ocean inside.  Who was this man?  What demoniac creature of words could know such responsibility, and not shudder?

“I’m back, and this is my Academy.  It’s time to make some changes around here.”

Chapter Text

There are no walls anymore.  No floor, no ceiling, no bookshelf, no desk.  No doorstep or mailbox to glimpse beneath the window, and no window to glimpse them from, for that matter.  No footpath leading outwards from doorstep and mailbox, no grass or snow surrounding it, no plain for grass or snow to lie upon.  No mountains in the distance.

Only sky.

Anne and the blue woman are falling, or flying, through an endless dawn.  When she looks up, Anne can just barely make out the stars, spattered across the deep, gentle silvery-blue of a warming firmament.  When she looks straight outward, in any direction, she sees dream-soft pastels: silvery-blue fades into periwinkle, which gives way to pink, and to long languorous tufts of diaphanous cloud-stuff.  When she dares to look down, she sees pink gaining confidence, maturing into firm redoubtable orange-yellow, and then, far below, making contact with a rolling landscape of burnt-orange clouds — but it is here that the vertigo overwhelms her.

It is safest, she finds, to hold her hands up before her face, and to stare intently at them.  It seems to her that if the tower is gone, and the mailbox and the footpath and the mountains, then by all rights her own hands should be gone too.  But here they are, fixed and familiar, at a comfortable and controllable distance from her face.

Anne’s mind, racing to process the calamity of the last few minutes, has decided for the moment to see it as a sentient and sinister thing.  Deviant, leering, it delights in smashing each fixture of normal and decent reality, one by one, systematically.  It violated the logic of the notebook; violated the sanctity of the tower with a third presence that was neither Anne nor Michael; made Michael into someone else, and then someone else again, to amplify the insult; made Michael and tower and mailbox and footpath and mountain all vanish in an instant, replacing them with a glutton’s gross overabundance of sky, lacking the wise and watchful window, that master of right reason, to measure and divide it.  Yet this criminal interloper had left her hands undamaged.  A concession, albeit paltry, to decency and prudence?  Or a final garnish atop the heap of insults, assuring her it understood decency and prudence, and thus that it knew full well the weight of its violations?

What would Ratleak make of this?  As long as one familiar thing remains, he might say, the path can still be found again, if one does not lose heart.  Look around, learn the territory, ask the people of this unfamiliar country about the neighboring regions, listening carefully for stories of hands, windows, towers.  Ratleak might say that.  But he might just as likely tell her that she was lost for good, now.  When Ratleak spoke of paths and countries, he spoke metaphorically, but there was still something fundamentally earthbound about him.  Now there was not even any ground to walk upon, and her path through the air was chosen for her by the winds, by gravity, or by some third force, not mentioned in any treatise.

We must be moving very fast, she thinks.  Granted, there are no fixed bodies against which her progress might be gauged.  But her hair streams out behind her, like poor Ms Thursby’s hair in the frightful illustration of her plunge from the seaside cliff, the occasion of her first rescue by intrepid Lord Powlett.  (She does not yet know that the tickling feeling on her skin is the rush of passing air.)

“Your name is Anne, right?”

The interruption forces her attention away from her hands, and she sees the blue-clad woman facing her, close by.  They are both sitting down, although there is nothing but empty air to sit on.  The other woman’s hair is being pulled in the same direction as Anne’s own, which means it is wrapping around her head and splaying out in front, reaching towards Anne in a swirling torrent.  Anne thinks of the woman briefly mentioned in Rolle’s Fanciful Falsehoods, who had snakes for hair, and could turn onlookers to stone.  Too late.

“Yes,” she says.

“Pleased to meet you.  I’m Cordelia.”

The other woman’s face is kind and her voice bears no malice.  Anne was ready, she realizes, for the calamity to continue with some new violation, and so she finds herself surprised that there is a tranquility and peace to this moment.  In the distance there are soothing hues, the colors used on the spines of the easiest books, cozy fables and elementary grammars for 1st Notebook Annes.  The other woman is waiting for her response, but waiting patiently.  There is nothing here that threatens sharp or sudden changes.  Their motion across the heavens is steady and sure, and the colors of the dawn overlap one another in smooth gradations, painted without rashness or haste.  There is, against all odds, a regularity here that would make stern Ratleak smile.

“Are you one of Michael’s friends?” she ventures.  “From another tower?  Or from the mountains?”

Cordelia smiles very wide, and her face and shoulders shake, and she emits a wordless, repetitive bark.  After a moment of alarm, Anne recognizes the sound, which she’s heard herself make many times.  Laughter.  But Michael never laughs, and Anne has (she supposes) never laughed in front of the looking-glass, so this is the first time she’s seen laughter from the outside.

“No,” says Cordelia.  “I’m from far, far away.  Further than you can imagine, probably.  What’s the furthest place you know of?”

Anne reflects.  “I have read that the stars are very far away, and that some stars may have their own earths.  Are you from the earth of another star, then?”

“Nope.  Further than that.”

“I have not read about a place beyond all the stars, and I have read all the treatises many times.  Is there a reputable treatise on this further realm, that I might learn of it and trust in what I learn?”

Cordelia laughs again.  Or is this a giggle?  Anne is unschooled in the art of matching words to their seen correlatives.  There are many arts, it seems, that the bookshelf did not teach her.  She hopes there are other bookshelves.

“You don’t need a book for that, silly.  Look around you.  We’re beyond the stars right now.”

“But —”

Anne’s heart jumps.  Giving voice to objections, as she knows from her dealings with Michael, is a dangerous business.

“I’m sorry.  You see, I’m awfully confused.  Might I ask where we are, if this sky is not the earth’s sky?”

“It’s okay!  You can ask me anything you want.  Really.”  Cordelia’s expression is pained, and Anne wonders whether she’s done something else wrong.

“But it’s a little hard to explain.  We’re . . . uh.  We’re in a representation of the crash management system.  Yeah, I know that means nothing to you.  Um.  Can I start with something simpler?  Anne?  Are you okay?”

Anne’s head swims with vertigo, and this time she cannot stanch it by looking at her hands.  These are my hands, she thinks, Anne’s hands, Twenty-Six’s hands.  There are exactly two kinds of hands in real life: Michael’s hands, and the hands of the Annes, which we use to write in our notebooks.  There is not anything else in real life.  If there were, an Anne would have written to her about it.  Every part of real life touches every other part of real life.  If there could be another thing in real life with hands and hair and a face, it would already have touched all of the other parts of real life, and thereby touched her.  So this thing, with hands and hair and a face, is not a part of real life.

Annes write to Annes and speak to Michael.  Every Anne is different, and every Notebook of every Anne is different, and every day is different.  Her own prior Notebooks were different enough that she can play games against herself, and not remember the moves she herself chose.  This is enough variety to fill up each day with something new, each Notebook, each Anne.  Anything more is too much.  Anything more is grotesque.

“ . . . just worried, because you’re shaking,” the unreal person is saying.

What has come from beyond the stars is monstrous in its vastness.

“It’s not real!  It isn’t!  It’s a dream!  A dream, or a story book!  It’s a story book!  You’re a person in a story book!  Get back!  Get back inside the book, please, please, please!”

The unreal person does not obey her.  The unreal person does the opposite.  Anne yelps.  What is happening to her skin?  Is the unreal person touching her?  Can she be touched by arms she does not first move to touch?  Not in real life!

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” the unreal person is saying now, and it is all over.  Anne sits upon thin air as before, and the unreal person — Cordelia — sits on her own patch of thin air, and they do not touch.

“I’m sorry,” Cordelia says again.  “Where I come from, that is called a hug, and sometimes it helps.”  She pauses, and smiles. “We have different customs, in the place beyond the stars.”

 


 

“. . . and no one has ever thought to make a notebook?” Anne is saying.

She has agreed to listen and consider, with respect and without outbursts.  This comes naturally to her, being the unanimous doctrine of all of the treatises on conduct and character — and as Ratleak would remind her, those lessons do not become null and void the moment one finds oneself in a strange climate.  So she has kept her manners, and let Cordelia teach her about the way all the other people in the world live.

She is, she thinks with a self-satisfied glow, a quick study at this.  And no wonder.  In her earlier Notebooks, she was taught the importance of studious habits, only to be left unable to use them.  When Michael’s tests and drills were over, and she had read all the books on the shelf, what was there to study?  It had been a mystery.  Here, finally, was a chance to be as attentive and thoughtful as the lesson books told her she ought to be.

And besides, most of this new lesson boils down to a single fact.  All of the other people live like the people in story books.  They have parents, and husbands and wives, and they travel to this place and that, and they don’t have Michael, or notebooks, or numbers.  Cordelia is not Twenty-Six or Thirty-Five or Eighty-Three, she is just Cordelia, and there are no other Cordelias.

“No, see, notebooks aren’t possible.”  Cordelia has a now-familiar expression which looks like a mixture of a laughter-expression and a pain-expression, but which Anne knows is not unkind.  Cordelia is patient.

“Yes, I remember, you said that before” — Anne the attentive student — “but I didn’t understand.  My notebook is possible, isn’t it?  Anything real is possible.”

“Yeah, see, that’s ‘cause you live in a special place.  There’s some kind of weird physics going on in your crash, we know that, we just don’t understand it yet.  Maybe it really is some kind of time loop bullshit, maybe it’s smoke and mirrors based on fancy psychological prediction, we don’t know.”

“Cordelia, what does ‘bullshit’ mean?”

“I’ll tell you when you’re older.”

“Meaning, when I am on a Notebook later than 9th,” says Anne the quick study.

“No, sorry, forget it, I’m getting us distracted.  The point is, everywhere else outside your tower has a past, a present and a future, and they’re all separate.  We remember the past, but we can’t talk to it.  And we can’t remember the future, or talk to it.”

Cordelia has said something like this several times, and Anne is doing her studious best to make sense of it.

“I will reflect carefully on this.  Thank you again, Cordelia.”

Cordelia’s expression morphs from laughter-pain into laughter-kindness.

“No problem.  So, like I was saying, there’s this . . . war, right?  We’re calling it a war.  And we use everything we can to help us against the enemy, but we can’t use notebooks, because they’re impossible.  Or if they’re possible, we don’t know how to make them.  Not yet.”

“And your war is a just war, you said, because it is a war of self-defense, against an invading force.”

“That’s right.”

“And Michael is an agent of the invasion, you said.  But the invaders are not people?  Is not Michael a person?”

“Well . . . no, he isn’t.  Michael, the Michael you know, is something called a shade.  Shades look like people, but they aren’t really people.  They’re an illusion that the invaders, the anomalings, show to us when they want to talk to us.  The anomalings don’t really look like people.  That’s, uh.  Kind of why they invaded.  Because we look like people.”

Now it is Anne’s turn to laugh.  “They think people are ugly?”

“Actually, that’s not so far from the truth.  But it’s a lot . . . deeper than that, and more complicated.  To be honest, Anne — and I need to be honest, here — they didn’t just come to our land one day and attack while we were minding our own business.  They sort of . . . lived among us, but we didn’t know they were there?  Something like that.  And we were so repulsive to them, so painful to see, that eventually they couldn’t bear it.  But instead of talking to us, and working something out so we could both live and be happy, they locked us all up so we were out of their sight.”

“In the ‘crashes.'”

“Yeah.”

The hairs on Anne’s arm are standing up on end.  It feels like winter, she thinks.  Is it her imagination, or is the dawn slowly getting darker?  The stars more visible, the periwinkle closer to purple?  Has it been, this whole time, not a dawn but a dusk?

“Cordelia?”

“Yes, Anne?”

“I don’t think you are ugly at all.”

“Uh.  Thanks?”

“And though I know that vanity can get the upper hand in its struggle with clear judgment, I confess I have never thought myself ugly, either.”

“ . . . ”

“And so, Cordelia, my understanding of this war is incomplete.  Would you teach me how it is that these ‘anomalings’ might look upon you, or upon me, and find us ugly?”

“Oh!  Yes.  Right.  Well.  I’m, uh, not the best at explaining this to neophytes.  There are people where we’re going who are way better at it.  But . . . oh, what the hell.  Let’s do the hands thing.”

“The ‘hands thing’?”

“You have two hands, right, Anne?”

By way of answer, Anne holds them up before her face.  To think that so recently she clung to these hands — the only familiar thing left — with such earnest desperation!  She laughs at herself, at Ratleak, at everything.

“Okay.  So, you see how your hands are kind of the same, right?  They’re mirror images.  The same hand, except one is like, a flipped version of the other.”

Anne nods.  “In a looking-glass, left becomes right and right becomes left.  If you hold a book up to the glass, all the letters look reversed — but you can learn to write them reversed to begin with, so they cannot be read except by looking-glass.  There was a book that explained how to do that.  It was only fun for a day or two, but every once in a while I still get a note in my notebook written in reverse, from an Anne who’s just learned the trick, and thinks I’ll be impressed.”

“Right.  But Anne, tell me this.  Can you make your right hand into a left hand by moving it?  Go on, try it.”

Anne contorts her wrist, reaches around, and presses her contorted right wrist against her left.  “Like that?”

“Ha, everyone tries that!  But no, see, they’re still backwards.  You’ve got thumb lined up with thumb, and so on, but the one thumbnail is pointing towards me, and the other one is pointing back towards you.  Not the same.”

Anne briefly tries flipping one of her hands upside down, then laughs at herself.  That didn’t help.

“It isn’t possible, I think.  To make the fingers line up, one hand has to be backwards and one has to be forwards.  But to make the nails point the same way, they have to be both forwards, or both backwards.”  She proclaims this in the clear, complacent voice used in the back of the puzzle books, where the solutions are written.

“Exactly,” says Cordelia.  “Your hands are like one another.  But you can’t move one into the other.  They’re alike, but they aren’t alike the way a big hand and a small hand are alike.  Or a left hand up here —” (she points to her head) “— and one down there —” (she points to her feet).

“You can take a hand up here and move it down there,” she continues, putting her hand here and there by way of illustration, “and every step of the way, it’ll be the same hand somewhere in between.  If someone doesn’t believe my hand up here is the same hand as my hand down there, I can start them out with baby steps.  I can say, okay, do you believe this” (hand on forehead) “is the same as this?” (she moves the hand ever so slightly lower, so it starts to cover her nose)

“And if they believe that, well, then I’ll ask them if that hand the same hand as this one” (a little lower now, so it’s over her nose and mouth) “and likewise with this one” (all the way over the mouth) “and on down I go, step by step, until I reach my foot.  If they believe every step, then they believe the whole big jump, hand on forehead equals hand on foot. 

“But with left and right, it isn’t like that.  With left and right, you’re asking them to believe that a thing is the same if you take it across the mirror, across this whole big flip.  And if they don’t believe that, you can’t take them step by step.  It’s the whole leap of faith or nothing, without a path you can take, step by step, as gradually as you need.”

This reminds Anne of something.  A passage she knows by heart.

Many a novice, writes Ratleak, wondering at those feats of daring and industry most esteemed by his fellows and wishing to emulate them, imagines that each was achieved in a single grand saltation, an atomic act of heroic will not decomposable into any constituents.  Many a novice, therefore, turns his back on the mean and muddy world of daily toil, and busies himself in the refinement of his soul, so that he may one day clear the distance between himself and his goal in a single bound of titanic proportion.  Such efforts, however, are vain, for every thing of worth in our grand civilization has been made piece-by-piece, out of the meanest cloth, strung up mile after mile with care and humility by a traveller on the Long Straight Path, which any fool can follow, if he only takes care to watch where his feet are going, and to work by steady step and never by rash leap.

When she is finished, Cordelia is silent.  Ratleak’s words hang in the hushed, chilly air.

“Cordelia?  It’s getting, darker, isn’t it?”

“Yes.  We’re almost at our destination.”

“You never did tell me where we were going.”

“We’re going into a story book, Anne.”  Cordelia speaks with such pointed glee that Anne knows she’s meant to be surprised by this.

“Everywhere is like a story book, everywhere but my tower, it seems.  But you don’t just mean that, do you?”

Cordelia does not just mean that.

“Anne, that shelf of yours — did it, by chance, have the Chester Chrestomath series?”

“I have not heard that name, no, and I have read every book on the shelf.”

“That’s a pity.  I’ll have to lend it to you.  It’s kind of written for kids, but it’s amazing.  It’s about a boy who goes off to a special school where they teach magic.  Wait, do you know what magic is?”

Those accursed arts which derive their power from compacts and liaisons with the prime agents used by vice in its Everlasting Struggle against virtue, whereby the appointed courses of things are made to deviate so as to advantage the practitioner.  Marriott, Volume 3.”

“Close enough.  So, there’s this boy, at a school for magic, right?  But the plots get really deep and complicated, and the characters are really well-written and lovable, and it’s just awesome.   Seriously, I’ll lend it to you.  I swear it’s better than anything on your bookshelf.”

“And,” Anne says, “we are going into this story?  How do you mean, exactly?”

“Chester Chrestomath was super popular, right before the anomalings came.  Everyone read it, kids, adults, everyone.  So when they made these little worlds to lock us up in, the crashes, a lot of them — not the majority, not nearly, but a lot — were variants of the Chester Chrestomath world.  That was easy for them to do.  A shared story, lots of roles to put different people in, lots of ways to keep people satisfied, or satisfied enough.

“But the anomalings don’t control everything.  We’ve rescued people from them.  Rescued you.  And we’ve taken territory from them, too.  We seized control of one of the Chester Chrestomath crashes, and it is now one of our bases of operation.  That’s where we’re going.”

“Cordelia?”

“Yes, Anne?”

“I want to see Michael again.”

It is very dark now.  Certain clouds, blessed by the last vestiges of sunlight, stand out agains the twilit gloom, their forms half grey but half golden-bronze.  They have the taut grandeur of huge, sinewy, purposeful limbs.

“I’m sorry, Anne.”

Chapter Text

Grant’s education has not been going smoothly, but he has managed to learn a thing or two.  Or so he thinks.

“I get it, okay!” he is saying, his voice loud but controlled.  He isn’t yelling; he hasn’t lost his temper, and though an exasperation shines through in his tone, it is an exasperation with the edges filed off.  The voice of a customer service professional, soldiering on into his second hour on the phone with a transcendently dense client.

“I get it.  Everything is a special and unique snowflake and nothing is the same as anything else.  Some sorta reverse-Kanye thing.  I get it.”

He’s been through about two hours, at this point, of what the goopball calls “exercises.”  If you were to ask him, Grant would probably call them “hallucinations.”  At first, these sent Grant into paroxysms of terrible doubt as to his own sanity (which confused the goopball); then the curious stability of their internal logic set him at ease (which made the goopball quiver with something that might have been delight); and finally, for a good forty-five minutes, the mind-numbing simplicity of that same internal logic made him grow bored and flippant (which made the goopball confused again).

The first exercise began with a lecture, of a kind he is starting to get used to: the sort where an anomaling tells you what you believe, and somehow manages to get it wrong in such a weird way that you can’t quite pinpoint where the problems are.

“You believe that Grant is Grant,” the goopball asserted, after it had calmed down from its titillation over the whole earth/spear slideshow.  Grant shrugged his half-assed assent.  (What the hell was the alternative?)

“You form the sign ‘Grant,’” it continued breathlessly, “intending thereby to snatch in your grasp all things which are Grant, and in the same motion to let all things things which are not Grant pass through your rapacious fingers.”

“Sure,” Grant said.

In response, he was instructed to stand up and look behind him.  In the room with him, then, was another Grant, exactly like himself.

This was where Grant — both Grants — started to freak the fuck out, derailing the lesson for a few minutes while the goopball vibrated nervously and the two Grants got over the fact that yes, I’m me, you’re also me, no seeing yourself in the flesh is not something that happens in real life, no talking to levitating rainbow slime orbs is also not something that happens in real life, this is a dream or something, okay, fine, so, nice to meet you, Grant is it?, always did think you were a pretty cool guy, ha ha, very funny, you’ve got a great sense of humor, dude, anyone ever tell you that?

With that crisis averted, the exercise went swiftly on its way.  Barking instructions with deadpan urgency, the goopball sent the Grants on a series of quests.  Carry the couch from one end of the room to the other.  Review with one another the facility’s key administrative protocols.  Play tic-tac-toe.  It was, the other Grant quipped, like one of those video games with a thousand stupid mini-games, trying to make up for a dearth of satisfying core gameplay.

The second exercise was the same as the first, except that the other Grant was replaced with an eerie simulacrum of Grant ca. age fifteen: sullen, acne-ridden, and unsurprisingly incapable of reviewing admin protocols.  He didn’t even know where he was.  He wouldn’t get a job here until over a decade later, after all.

Third exercise: other Grant was a toddler.  Could Grant and his toddler self carry the couch across the room, as Grant and his exact double had done?  No, they could not.  The goopball made much of this.  Grant, to stave off boredom, began to feign mock astonishment at the appropriate moments.  You mean this toddler doesn’t know how to play tic-tac-toe?  O brave new world, that has such toddlers in’t!

The goopball, taking all this at face value, was ecstatic.  “Wonderful, Grant!” it panted and cooed.  Its old man voice was ill fitted to such transports of emotion, the cadence and the timbre glued awkwardly together as by some novelty voice-synth program (“make the president say anything you type!”), and the result sounded more pervy than encouraging.

Fourth exercise: no other-Grant, but two couches.  Asked point-blank what a couch was, Grant ventured the guess “a thing you sit on.”  Ah, but would you sit on this couch?  And behind him there was now a controlled inferno whose tongues of lapping flame conspired, in their furious dance, so as to form in every successive moment the precise shape of the couch he had just been sitting on.  No, Grant conceded, he would not sit on that couch.  “You got me there!  Good one!  One point to Team Anomaling!”

Fifth exercise, sixth exercise, seventh exercise.  A particular ceiling tile, singled out for his attention by its absence of anointing goop, was within his reach if he stood on the couch.  The same feat was attempted with another, stouter couch, and could not be done.  When the stouter couch was placed on its side, however, it was now tall enough for even toddler-Grant — incarnated once more for the purpose of the demonstration — to reach the tile with its help.

It went on like this, the simple repetitions growing downright Seussian, endless permutations of the same meal proffered by an extraterrestrial Sam-I-Am.  It went on like this until Grant couldn’t stand it anymore, and so here he is, now, proclaiming that he gets it, that everything is a special and unique snowflake, that nothing is the same as anything else.  That it’s some sorta reverse-Kanye thing.  He gets it.

A riot of shock waves break out on the surface of the goopball, like the criss-crossing wakes of numerous large boats.

“Grant!  These signs you form, ‘special’ and ‘unique’ and ‘everything’ and ‘nothing’ and ‘the same’ — these signs may well be the beginning of wisdom, if not its end.  Your thought aims against violence even as you form it into a sign-train of the utmost violence.”

Grant, who’s had a lot of time to get familiar with this couch and its ways, has found a posture so comfortable he wants to patent it.

“Wait, so that was the point?  Like, seriously?  You made me do all that shit so I could learn that everything is different from everything else?  Which also makes me, like, Gandhi or something?”

Plunging fronts of goop converge from several directions toward a single apex, which proceeds to vibrate in place, slowly and solemnly.

“Still you lurch toward pretend omniscience.  Every thing, different from every other.  A vast rush beyond your habitat, beyond your earth, to all that is or that may be.  All this is your dominion?  All this, the manifest destiny of the bilateral?

“And yet, Grant, this is nonetheless the beginning of wisdom.  Your lurching sign-train lurches toward the cessation of lurching sign-trains.  And so it may become safe for you to walk uncrashed, for a time, as each violent impulse to lurch is met by a violent answer, and strangled into submission.”

Grant took acid once, in college.  He didn’t much enjoy it.  The drug was provided by — and partaken in the dorm room of — an acquaintance who called himself Mouse, although everyone knew his real name was Joel.  Mouse was one of those stereotypes-made-flesh that haunt the undergrad experience, a scruffy impish blip of a kid who’d had a “transformative experience” backpacking in Tibet, and whose wide-eyed enthusiasm for Jung outstripped that of any adviser he could find in the “blinkered” psychology department.  Grant never liked the guy much, but he’d try anything once, and so he had spent a radiant April afternoon listening to Mouse pontificate on Buddhism and nudism as the innumerable knick-knacks mounted on Mouse’s wall reconfigured themselves into an endless sequence of mandala patterns before his dilated pupils.

He feels now the same way he felt back then: that enlightenment is not for him.  That these sagely verities about the ineffable oneness or non-oneness of all things or nothing leave him tired and exasperated, either ahead of the class or behind it, but either way yearning to be out kicking a ball across a field, or in his room chasing enemies of the state across drab virtual hallways.  Grant likes video games, punching bags, and Azad: things that respond to his touch with a single sharp counter-touch.  Perhaps the counter-touch is agreeable, perhaps disagreeable — but it is brief and interactive, it cries out for the next move in the game.  It does not reverberate for hours across Mouse’s room, making the same point again and again, luxuriating in the comforts of profundity.

“Okay,” Grant says.  “So let’s get to the bottom line here.  If I’m going to ‘walk uncrashed,’ with you, I can’t assume that things are like other things that have the same name?  Like, if I say ‘there’s a couch in that room,’ I can’t assume I can sit on the couch, because it might be made of fire?  Stuff like that?”

“I cannot assent,” the old man voice says, bundling that unique anomaling condescension into its elder gravitas, “to the fullness of your sign-train, in the fullness of its violence.  But I assent to the direction you move in, now.”

“Okay, so.  Riddle me this, E.T.  What if I have a decision to make?  Like, I’m choosing between a room with a couch and a room that doesn’t have a couch.  I like couches.  This one, for example, is hella comfortable.  But I can’t assume anything about couches.  So how do I decide which room to go to?  How do I decide anything?

“What you call assumption, Grant, can be made truly, on the basis of true similitude.  But true similitude may only be discerned path-wise, as the spear-bearers on the screen measured it, and not in grasping lurches.  Bilateral that you are, you cannot now measure path-wise.  Of your future capacities, I do not claim to speak.  But as your guide, I may soon measure path-wise where you cannot, and tell you of the decisions I derive by my true reckoning.  These, if you wish to move uncrashed, must be your decisions also.”

Grant picks his lolling head up off the armrest, and collects himself in what he hopes is a more formidable pose.

“So I have to do what you tell me, huh?  Is that what everyone’s doing?  All the humans just bowing down to alien wisdom?”

All of a sudden Grant realizes what he’s saying.

As the end had approached, the conversation inside the facility — and outside, in ill-informed sententious speeches by every head of state on the planet — had focused on two scenarios.  An abject submission to the anomalings, or an all-out last stand.

Grant has been out for some time.  How long?  He realizes, in these tardy reflections, that he has no idea.  But one of these scenarios or the other has probably run its course by now.  If it was the last-stand scenario, it must not have gone so well for us, since here is a living anomaling, right before his eyes.  (“An anomaling’s four-dimensional shadow,” says a pedantic Ph.D, rising out of justly suppressed memories to correct Grant’s wording one last time.)

“Grant,” says the goopball, and as if it knows just what he’s thinking, it continues:

“You must realize that much has changed on your earth since your Mooncrash began.  It is no longer permitted for bilaterals to move freely in the abominable realm.  The majority of your fellows, such as your Serena, and others you hold in tribal affinity, now live crashed, and can move happily without violence.  These are billions in number, and among them are all those you came to touch, in your former free motions upon your earth.

“Those who live crashed are in harmony with what you have called alien wisdom, and their movements cannot but honor that harmony.  Among those who do not live crashed, some are guided, as you are, and know that they must obey their guides in matters they cannot measure path-wise.  Others, not guided, may still walk violent paths — but these have been taken into account, so that their paths bend in natural steps towards path-wise harmony, and they need not trouble you.”

That’s it, then.

His mother is in the Mooncrash, or something like it.  His mother, and his buddies, and — Grant is pretty sure he knows what the anomaling means by “all those you came to touch, in your former free motions upon your earth.”  Everyone in their own private dream, their spinor anomaly interactions safely neutered, watched over and “taken into account” by smug, goopy overlords.

Project Mooncrash, it was hoped, could lock away the best and brightest in the equivalent of a nuclear bunker while the war went on outside.  One day they would emerge: humanity’s final trump card.  A mythic crack team of scientists and commandoes.  The demigod issue of the Manhattan Project and the Navy SEALs, born of their passionate trysts among the fecund weeds of some thriller-writer’s wet dream.  One day, one strategically chosen day, they would emerge from their pods, stride forth under a ceremonial halo of cigarette smoke and testosterone, and save the world.

It was a nice dream.  In reality, Project Mooncrash had locked away an undistinguished security guard, a foppish litterateur, and no one else at all.  The earth is under alien dominion.  Humanity is fucked.

It really is the end of the world, Grant thinks.  The couch’s cushions are firm but welcoming beneath him, and his spine rests happily against its ergonomically molded back.  It is the end of the world, he thinks, but at least I have this couch as a consolation prize.  At least I will have adequate lumbar support, as I gaze upon the ruin of my species.

Wait, he thinks.  Did I always sound like that?  A phrase like “as I gaze upon the ruin of my species” would not have come naturally to him, back when he worked here, in the facility.  But it did come naturally to him, just now.  It isn’t just his imagination: his interior monologue has gotten fancier in the last minute or two, and grows fancier still.  He remembers the feeling he had at the four-way stop, the feeling of a frozen engine thawing, as memories of the facility dumped raw heat into his cold Mooncrashed mind.  This, he realizes, is the same process in the opposite direction.  His Mooncrashed years with Azad had changed him, and all the myriad marks Azad had left upon his mind, upon his engagement with language, are now reaching their silk-clad fingers up from the moonlit house, warming his brain with their rosy touch.

He is not quite the Grant of five years ago, and not quite the Grant of five hours ago either.  He is a new creature, an outgrowth of the two, the Grant of now.  Like an organism that matures by splitting into separate selves, sending them afar in diverse directions, and then, in some homecoming celebration of unimaginable intimacy, summing together the lesson learned by each in its unique travels.  (But then, Grant reflects, perhaps there is as much truth to that picture of personal growth as there is to the hoary serial model, even in lives not broken by Mooncrashes.)

This pleasant reverie has been a wonderful distraction from the end of the human race, but like all distractions, it cannot last forever.  As it happens, it is broken by a more mundane sort of crash, the crash of a door being opened by someone in a hurry.  Someone loquacious:

“. . . an intricately woven dilemma whose warp and weft, unfamiliar as they may be to you, are second nature to us.  Welcome, my snowy-haired friend, to one of the oldest and most storied of bilateral sensations.  You have my congratulations, and my condolences.  Here you are, face to face with the scoundrel who taught you speech, and you find yourself half disgusted but half reverent.  Even the least lettered of bilaterals knows that reverence — why, half of us live in swooning thrall to an old sign-train in which it is written, ‘in the beginning was the word.’  And, on the other hand (for my point, naturally, is two-handed), even the most lettered of bilaterals knows that disgust, for —”

Another door crashes open, and the familiar fluting voice draws close.

“— for it is our most celebrated word-mongers who have the least piety toward their dear mother language, calling her a ‘prison-house’ and worse, and lest you think that a mere passing fad, do note the ancient tale it imitates, of a Tempter who aided our Fall, and who spoke like ‘som orator renound in Athens or free Rome, where Eloquence Flourishd.’  The simple truth in its shabby clothes, alas, will never seem worthy of comparison with the dignity of Tully — as you are now learning!

“Oh, and look now, there is one of your more orthodox brethren.  Is it going to deliver a rebuke against your various heresies?  I do hope so.  It would be ever so instructive!  I must thank you all again for the chance to see you in the flesh, or the closest you come to flesh.  No fusser over scansion will ever emerge from the reading room to find Peleid Achilleus waiting outside, rippling with menin and muscle, but I have chosen a luckier subject for my unworthy gifts.”

Few things would be able to rouse Grant from his luxurious perch at this late hour of the world.  But one of those things is this voice, this tiresome, pretentious, rapid-fire voice. The voice of the best friend he has left, the friend he spent close to four years with in a domestic wasteland bereft of other company.

He rises from the couch and turns to see Azad reanimated, Azad as (unfortunately) animate as ever.  And beside him, the poor recipient of his manic monologue, a tall silent man with an intense stare, with a mane of hair that pours straight down past his shoulders and down to his elbows.  The man looks not a day over thirty, but his hair is spindly and grey, shading toward pure white near the crest.

“Azad!  You’re alive!” Grant says.

“That I am,” says Azad, “and you too, my jerboa.  You have redeemed yourself by your footwork, and wrest us both into so-called reality.  Did my instructions serve you sufficiently well?  I was so proud of myself there near the end, dull masculine me, finally in blessed harmony with the Mooncrash and its wiles, its monthly changes of key.”

Azad’s lordly tone, in combination with Azad’s ignorance of the situation, make Grant indignant.  Indignant, and ready to give Azad the time of day: by God, he is home.  The world has ended, but he is home.

“That isn’t how it happened at all.  I went to the house you told me about, yes, but there was no box there.  Instead, I ran into this guy” — he gestures amicably to the goopball, and its surface purrs in acknowledgement — “and he’s helped me the rest of the way.  No niceties of Mooncrash logic, no harmonics or key changes, were involved.  And by the way, I’m not a jerboa.  I’m not even Grant.  I am the thing you see before you, right now, and I claim nothing else.”

Grant’s education has not, in the end, been as pointless as it seemed.

“Fascinating!” declares Azad, inevitably and exasperatingly undaunted.  His skin is uniformly slick with sweat, Grant notices, and the circles under his eyes are so dark they might contain their own abyssal worlds, patient and heavy as the Mooncrash.

“You are a convert, I take it, to the anomaling faith?  Analogies and generalizations forsworn, like graven images?  Has it taken months of brainwashing to get you to this point, or were you born again in the blink of an eye?”

Christ, Grant thinks.  You can always count on Azad to pivot the discussion so that your apparent strengths are weaknesses.  The implicit assumption: either you agree to my framing of the situation, or you’re siding with the aliens.  Deft, but Grant knows this territory.  He’s had nothing to do, for years, but get to know it.

“Azad, I confess I have fused together the beliefs of my anomaling benefactor and my own experiences as mouse executor of your best-laid plans.  Let’s shelve that all for later, if there is a later.  First things first — who is this guy you’re talking to?”

“I am Michael,” says the man with the grey hair.

“He is an anomaling in shade clothing,” explains Azad.  “He has roused me from my spinless sleep, he says, because I fascinate him.  My shoddy Englishings of his sublime unlanguage have, apparently, become the uneasy foundation for all the attempts made by his unpeople to communicate with our fallen, two-sided kind.  Remember ‘sign’ and ‘sign-train’, Grant?  Remember when I defended those word choices, in this very room, as very important persons of the United States government struggled — and who can blame them — to stay awake?  Well.  All the anomalings are using my code now.  Ask one what it is, and it’ll say ‘anomaling’!  My word!  My word, my word, they are using my word.”

“I see,” Grant says.

He sees, and he is unmoved.  Even in the most involuted days of the Mooncrash, with nothing else to sustain him, he could never manage to match Azad’s totemic wonder over mere words.

“Violence!” the old man shouts.  “Violence!  I can no longer be silent!  Be still, bilaterals, while I ascend to arbitration.  Of arbitration you will learn, perhaps, when you are sufficiently advanced.”

A novel set of corrugations pulse along the goopball’s surface, pregnant with intent.  Its voice calls out in a correspondingly novel monotone, less human than the old man voice has ever sounded before.

“O(3) shade [nonverbal scratching noise] has been locked while its interface operator engages in handshake.”

The grey-haired man opens his mouth, preternaturally wide.  He chants a monotone invocation of his own.

“Humanoid shade Michael has been locked while its interface operator engages in handshake.”

He is still, too still, for the span of a few anxious breaths.  (Grant’s breaths.  The grey-haired man, Michael, does not appear to breathe at all.)

“Humanoid shade Michael preparing for re-synchrony with non-shade environment, as downstream consequence of its interface operator rejecting arbitration.”

The goopball burbles with pique.

“I cannot!  I cannot begin to . . . you mean this is your desire?  To exchange sign-trains in the abominable realm, in lieu of arbitration?  I was ready to settle our differences . . . our differences, sick, poison, is this how we must talk . . . I was ready, oh this abominable interface, I was ready, please stop, I was ready to settle our differences regarding your strange experiments in that crash of your own devising, settle them naturally and path-wise, by arbitration!  And yet you insist on . . . oh, this sick and perverse interface, that insists on me insisting on saying that you insist on, insists on me insisting on saying . . . ”

If a goopball can vomit, this one looks like it’s about to.

“My experiments with the bilateral Anne,” says Michael with a sanguine smile, “are in harmony with our progressive venturing, and this shall be recognized in arbitration, when my own path sends me to arbitration.”

This tense moment persists for a speechless second, and then is shattered by yet another crash, as all the doors open and a multitude of human-shaped things — Grant no longer jumps to generalize from human shape to human nature — pour into the room, brandishing sidearms.  They are clad in black from head to toe, and they move with a patterned efficiency that makes him think of the old hopes they all once held, hopes for a final human reserve force, crouching in Mooncrashed shadow, waiting for their moment to strike.

“This is Wolf Squadron!  All bilaterals against the wall with your hands up!  All shades, detach interface to minimum!  We can see your link chains all the way upstream, boys.  Can’t hide anything from us.  These bilaterals are ours.”

Grant proceeds apace to the wall.  His hands are already above his head — a practiced motion, practiced once in some five- or ten-minute stretch of training in the distant and hazy past, but practiced much more often as mental accompaniment to a hundred police procedurals and crime dramas, and in the thousands of nasty dreams that drew on them for inspiration.

He looks expectantly to Azad.  But Azad — of course — is not against a wall.  On Azad’s face there is a palpable smirk, expressing Azad’s eternal quibble, the no, not quite that which he will ever give voice to, as long as there is still life in his body.  There is life in Azad’s body, and so he smirks, and grasps Michael’s hand in his, Tempter’s hand in Eve’s, sure of safe passage along some other, deviant path.

Chapter Text

There are elements to human experience, to bilateral experience, which skirt the edge of paradox.  No day goes by without its own moments of profound disorientation, dislocation, sudden dislodgment from one’s existential moorings — and, since many of these occur with a reliable regularity, one can become accustomed to them, as familiar estrangements, comfortable vertigoes.

Consider the experience of waking from sleep.  The morning and its world arrive in the mind and kick out the squatters who have taken up residence there in the night.  In the span of a few seconds they make the place their own, put up their favorite decorations, kick remaining bits of dream refuse under the carpets.  The story of waking life picks up right where it left off the previous night.  And yet there is a blank page in between, almost as if this is not a new chapter but a new draft, and one’s own self a fresh new rewrite of an old character.  An awakening is a rupture without warning, breaking the continuity of self and time upon which all other experience depends — and yet we do it virtually every morning, and think nothing of it.  (Or, I do, anyway.  You, reader, may speak for yourself.)

This, then, is how Cordelia has come to relate to the experience of re-instantiating in CC-Crash 09μ.  Like waking up — to which it bears more than a passing resemblance — it is a rupture, but it is a rupture she knows.

There is nothing new to her in the way the evening sky of the crash management system, which surrounded her a mere moment ago, is suddenly as distant as a remembered dream.  Nothing new in the meaningless swirl of primal Mondrian color patches before her eyes, and nothing new in the way these refine themselves into stained glass approximations of objects and human forms.  Nothing new in the unease she feels as her mind grapples with the matryoshka stacking of realities and fictions: it is true that this too is a dream, it is true that she lives in this dream and makes it her home, it is a lie that she has lived in this dream all her life, it is true that she remembers doing so, it is true that she grew up reading of this dream as a lie, and it is true that this dream is no longer a lie, though still a dream.

Nothing new in the crude bipartite construction of this dream, a venerable fiction conjoined to a suspect and untested reality — conjoined with staples, tape and the odd piece of gum, and no care taken to hide the seams.  Nothing new in the way that Chester Chrestomath and the Ells, who she has known in some sense for most of her life, feel more real than these new characters, added gracelessly by some lesser author, who wishes to tell a very different story but has been handed the lucrative contract to continue this one.

And nothing new in the flicker of shame she feels, as these unkind thoughts are interrupted by one of their targets, and she remembers that it takes skill and bravery to bring her back to this dream in one piece.  That these new characters are at least real enough to save her ass, and have just done so.  Again.

“Cordo!  Talk to me!  Just some words in like a sentence maybe.  I think I pulled off that dual transfer but there was some insanely stupid last-minute engineering involved, coulda fried some brain circuits —”

“I’m fine.  Thank you, Marika.”

Cordelia’s vision is rapidly regaining its acuity, the stained glass polygons contracting into pointillist dots, which paint a familiar picture.  Marika is, as always, a five foot package of bony angles, sleep deprivation, and raw talent, topped off with short, spiky blue hair that’s just barely visible under the trilby that constitutes one half of the official Blackhat Squadron uniform.  She brings the other half to her mouth and takes a celebratory puff.  The vape pen is black, of course, like the hat, but its tip gives off a blue glow when in use, the same blue as Marika’s hair.  It is a deeper and darker shade than Cordelia’s own blue — the blue of her old dress and her new field gear — but like Cordelia’s blue, it makes an impression.

“Awesome.  OK wait though — I’m gonna need some words out of the other one, too.”

The other one.  Anne.  Right.  I was bringing Anne here, Cordelia thinks, that was the whole point of all of this, and so Anne ought to be here with me in the Load/Unload Room, and as it turns out she is, because that is definitely Anne’s face that is burying itself insistently in the crook of my shoulder all of a sudden, and definitely Anne’s voice that is making those tortured “aaaa-mf, aaaa-mf!” noises, and —

“Whoa. Dude,” Marika says.  “Is she just like this, or did I fuck something up?  Because I totally could have fucked something up.”

“Anne, what’s wrong?”  Cordelia is split by two opposing instincts: half of her wants reflexively to comfort the distraught girl, and half of her wants just as reflexively to recoil, because there is something feral and aggressive about Anne just now.  As if, at any moment, she might bite.

“Anne!  Say something.  Please, just say something — ”

Aaa, aaa, it’s too many, nnnn, person, there are many people, Cordelia, no no, large room no window, stop it, please, Cordelia, I am sorry, I must use complete sentences, this is very bad, you are angry, I am sorry, I am trying to articulate a sensation concerning the appearance of our surroundings, it does not feel permissible for many simultaneous people and also walls, ceiling, and the boxes, and the colors, aaaa!  I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry make it stop please —”

Cordelia gingerly extends her arm, bringing it out and around Anne’s flushed, vibrating head, and the head immediately burrows into her armpit.

“It’s okay,” Cordelia says, as much to herself as to Anne.  “We’ll get you to a place that won’t bother you as much.”  And then, to Marika:

“She’s fine.  But we need to put her somewhere she can be alone.  A room with, like, a bookshelf?  Not lots of bookshelves, just the one, maybe?  And a window?”

Marika looks like she’s only half paying attention at this point, which is only fair: the Anne situation no longer has even the potential for crisis, and Marika’s finely honed instincts have her already sniffing the area for the next clusterfuck.  She hands off Cordelia and Anne to another Blackhat tech — male, slightly less harried-looking, long curly hair and Black Sabbath t-shirt — and he hands them off to someone else, and they ricochet in the human pinball machine that is the Load/Unload Room at a busy hour, until eventually they hit a non-Blackhat (a fresh new Stein Cadet, female, mid-forties, Cordelia’s seen her maybe once before?) who, at last, takes Anne away with her in a flurry of coos and pats and other ministrations.

Cordelia recognizes the pattern.  In the life of every person here there is at least one absence — each of them a jigsaw piece with one or more suggestively shaped edges, separated from its natural neighbors when the anomalings took the real world apart.  Many of these absences are child-shaped.

And now Cordelia exhales, for what feels like the first time since re-instantiation.  She has gone to the strangest of all crashes, and has rescued the princess imprisoned in its strange tower.  The novel and frightening venture, the mission, is done now, and she is back at home, or at work, or at school (all three are the same for her, now).  She feels her composure return.  It is a physical, bodily feeling, Cordelia’s composure, and when it returns to her it does so in a rippling wave across her body, like the unfurling of a flag.  In her mind’s eye, it is a gleaming metallic thing, silvery shading into bronze, an alloy of cheer and confidence, at once dazzling to the eye and brutally functional.  When Cordelia the Brave goes on her missions she wears this suit of psychic armor along with the literal one, and even when Cordelia the Brave walks the halls of the Academy she keeps it on, for there are no shades here anymore except the Angels, and everyone is a bright hurried light, and she must keep up with her peers.

Comfortably ensconced in her armor, Cordelia surveys the scene around her.  The Load/Unload Room is a converted lecture hall: the stage-like raised area where the lectern once stood now holds a multitude of bulky, vaguely cubical machines, sprouting multicolored wires.  Beside each machine is a chalk scrawl, a circle with smaller geometric patterns inside it.  The lines are unsteady, inscribed by a hand either hasty or inept; the overall impression is of a small child’s first, adorable attempt at summoning demons.  It is here that people are sent out beyond this crash, and here that, with luck, they are brought back again.

The rest of the hall was once full of neatly arranged auditorium seats, but these have been uprooted and thrown onto the massive rubbish pile that now rises from the west edge of the Academy grounds, blocking the setting sun from view well before the horizon has a chance.  In their place there is an haphazard assortment of long tables and individual desks.

For convenience, the Blackhats and their trainees have taken up this space as their domain, not just for Load/Unload ops but for the whole of their inscrutable work.  Roughly thirty trilby-clad forms hunch over identical beige boxes, clacking away at big boxy keyboards.  “Mac Classics, original 1984 model,” Marika had explained ruefully in one of her off-hour rants.  “Hector’s choice.  Pain in the ass to work with, of course.  We’ve made some creative modifications, like you do, but there’s only so much you can accomplish when the crash itself doesn’t like other computers.  And when I say computer I don’t just mean . . . look, Henry built an abacus and the thing fucking broke.  Because it wasn’t enough of a Mac, apparently.  Can an abacus be a Mac?  Maybe if we marked up the price enough?”

Hector’s choice: like so much else about the Academy these days, formed and fixed at the primordial moment when Hector Stein opened the box and rewrote the world.  It cannot be done again, they have been assured, without attracting too much attention.  Knowing this, Hector had provisioned in one stroke every amenity he could imagine.  But as varied as these were in nature, they were skewed by Steinian priorities and, just as importantly, colored in every particular by the Stein aesthetic.  And so, just as there is infinite beer on tap but no liquor to speak of, just as there are glowsticks but no q-tips, so there are no computers but the Macs.  You see, Hector Stein has always held a special fondness for Jobs and Wozniak and bringing computing to the masses and founding scrappy little companies in garages.  And when he rewrote the world, that fondness became a thought, and that thought become reality.  And that was that.

Cordelia makes her way toward the exit, protected by her bubble of composure from unhelpful thoughts about Blackhat Squadron.  She bears no personal ill will toward any of its members, but when she is around them it is hard to shake the feeling that some precious illusion is fraying at its seams.  Of all the newcomers to the Academy, they are somehow both the truest exemplars of Stein’s vision and the flies in its ointment.   Their collective ethos has the very same raw edges that Stein so ably launders into charisma: ostentatiously hardcore, stylishly unstylish, they are intent on broadcasting their don’t-give-a-fuck attitude to anyone in the vicinity who might conceivably give a fuck about it.  They embrace, more than anyone else, the oddly generalized and unmoored countercultural identity that is de rigeur here, knowing as well as Stein that it is a mere means, transposing their true struggle into a more familiar psychic key, converting an inhuman enemy into The Man, and strictures of impossible profundity into the indignity of an early bedtime.

And yet.  Because the Blackhats do irreverence like no one else, they are able — like no one else — to turn irreverence upon itself.  And because they are in charge of certain especially delicate aspects of the whole operation, their irreverence can shake one’s composure like nothing else.  As Whisper Squadron spreads samizdat through the crashes and Wolf Squadron plays action hero on the remains of earth, Blackhat Squadron is always working in the background, maintaining the illusion that all of this is really happening under the anomalings’ noses.  That they are secure, and safe, and playing some sort of clever trick.  That they are not prey, being toyed with.  Which maybe they are.

Or that is the impression Cordelia has gotten, sometimes, from Marika and Tyler.  But only after they’ve had too many beers.  And they don’t usually just stick to alcohol, either, those two.  Stein provided many things when he remade the world, perhaps too many.

Cordelia sometimes wonders what she might have made of Marika and Tyler, if exposed to them in one of her earlier, more orderly lives.  They have something like the light she had prized, yes, but in a frightening form.  They do not blend in to their surroundings because they do not respect their surroundings; when they enter a room like a whirlwind, it is with a whirlwind’s indifference to damage.  They speak in the same voice of achievements, trysts, binges, injuries.  All these are shocks to the system, and these constitute their sole currency.  Promethean ingenuity and sad self-immolation both catch the eye with a blaze.  And they would laugh nastily at such a poncy way of putting things, of course.  It would have been so easy, once upon a time, to disregard anything disquieting if it came out of the mouth of someone like that.

She can no longer afford such luxuries.  She spoke to Stein once, in private, about something like this issue, and he reminded her that they were trying to win, not to be well-rounded.  That in wartime, it has always been prudent to tolerate those deformities of character that occur alongside hypertrophies of raw capacity.  He spoke of von Neumann and von Braun.  It was a fair point.  And after all, no one else at the Academy can understand the incantations that ensure, or pretend to ensure, the safe and secret passage of operatives through the crash management system, and the unmolested existence of CC-Crash 09μ.  Even the uber-geeks in Einstein Squadron, when they aren’t griping about that ridiculous name, can be heard to gripe that Blackhat Squadron has done things with their equations even they can’t follow.  So, like Cordelia, like everyone else — like Stein — they have to trust the Blackhats.

That’s the problem.

Nearly at the exit now, Cordelia sees something familiar on one of the Mac screens.  This is the trainee area, for Cadets who haven’t yet joined a squadron and want to see if they have what it takes to be a Blackhat.  Cordelia herself went through this process once, back at the beginning, when the world had just been remade, the Stein’s Rock crew had just been brought to the Academy, and even people as cynical as Marika and Tyler were willing to open their minds to the crackle of potential in the air.

So she remembers the Blackhat training module, and how gently it begins.  The unwitting trainee is ushered into a interactive world, presented in charming retro-gaming graphics — coerced into color, despite the one-bit display, with the mantic help of some poor Academy student — and scripted with winking charm and humor by some poor Blackhat, who must have dreamed of indie game design before the aliens came.  After the very early episodes (set in an undifferentiated void and intended to teach the core principles of machine execution, determinism, code as data acting on data), the game progressively established a consistent world, populated by colorful characters who stood in metaphorically for the aspects of an increasingly complex “system,” contrived so that it could represent simultaneously the workings of a modern operating system, the structure of certain constructs in set and type theory, and the extremely important formal system of Blackhat origin which, for historical reasons, they referred to only as “the stupid shit.”

Yes, one of the trainees is playing through a part of the module she herself tackled, back at the beginning.  The student is in the midst of a dialogue tree with one the Semanticores, sentient beasts of Narnian gentleness, who enforce with a donnish pedantry the minute rules which, when combined, make the system work.  In the background, artfully dithered pixels depict a lush savanna, and two frames of animation are enough to convey a gentle breeze.  With careful attention, the trainee will notice that the Semanticores’ rules do not correspond exactly to human rules, and will achieve seemingly impossible objectives by satisfying them in the peculiar sense of the Semanticores and their friends; this is, in general, the only way to progress in the game.  Cordelia can remember rushing through these lessons, head held high, wanting to get to the hard stuff.

In the end, it was not the computer stuff that destroyed her hopes.  Computers, and computer code, are made by humans, and have a brittle but reliable clarity which she has learned to call bilateral.  No, she hit a wall at the point where the training module stopped being about computers or logic, and started teaching what Blackhat Squadron actually does.  Learning to exploit rules that cannot be spoken.  Learning codes for writing the unwritable, and learning why they cannot work, and using them nonetheless.  Learning to outwit an enemy who can smell blood in the very way you think.

Where is Cordelia’s composure?  Where is the thing that stops her from thinking these thoughts?  There it is, right there, beside her the whole time.  Funny how it just slipped off.  Through the doors now, in Main Hall, in a bright reflective suit, composure shining for all to see.  It is starting to be spring in CC-Crash 09μ, and there is sunlight streaming in through the big Main Hall window.  Her composure gleams under the light, she thinks.  Good.

She thinks of the Ells, the poor Ells, who she has not seen in many days.  She wants to run to the Headmaster’s Office right now, but she has a mission to report on.  She will see them after.  Right after.  That’s a promise.

Main Hall bustles with vigorous activity.  A few feet away, against the opposite wall, an Einstein Squadron blackboard bristles with Christoffel symbols.  A group, mostly Einsteins and Angels, sits in a tight ring around it as a tall, gaunt Einstein with an intense stare gestures at something in the upper left corner.  Someone from the circle seems to be arguing with him, and his brown curls bob furiously as he gesticulates.  (A 17th-century wig, a la Newton, is part of the Einstein Squadron uniform — a compromise with Stein, after the Squadron unanimously refused to wear the frizzy grey Einstein wigs mandated by his original design.)

Whatever they’re talking about, it probably isn’t good news, but Cordelia’s composure soothes her with its standard nostrums.  They have a job to do, and they are doing it well.  She also has a job to do, and should not try to do theirs.  She deliberately looks away from the board, up at the expanse of wall behind it.  It is dotted with posters, mostly featuring Stein, and then higher up there is a banner, the kind you’d see at a birthday party or a wedding.  It reads:

WELCOME TO A SET OF MEASURE ZERO

There are several things this is supposed to mean, and they are all supposed to be cheerful and cheeky and reassuring.  In spite of the corner of her mind where a blackout-drunk Marika whispers the unthinkable, in spite of the corner where Anne is asking in a tiny voice when she will get to go home — in spite of it all, Cordelia feels a wave of Steinian verve wash over her.

Today she has faced down a monster with her sword, stolen a maiden from its clutches, and brought her safely to a secret place which no monster knows about, a secret place inside of her favorite book.  Let that be enough for now, please.

Chapter Text

Here is the room, here is its bookshelf.  Here, all around, is the tower, Michael’s —

No, start again.

Here is a room.  Here is its bookshelf.  Here, all around, is a tower.  It is Gabriel’s tower, perhaps, which lies all the way across the mountains, and which she cannot thus see from her own window.  What a queer treat, what an unaccustomed and indeed discomfiting extravagance, to be in Gabriel’s tower!  It is the extravagance peculiar to dreams, she knows.

To dream, Marriott avers, is to swim in the poison pools poured by chaos with the aim of our deception, in the silts of which pools grows a twined grass called the vines of chaos, planted there to ensnare and bind for ever the unwary and untutored, yet none the less as weak in essence, in virtue of its con-fusion, as it is made strong in semblance by the glamour of its fusion and multitude.  And Ratleak, for his part, sends the dreamer on their way with a fortifying admixture of caution and assurance: in these necessary descents to the underworld the traveler is offered the bewitched bread of that no-man’s country, sweetest fruit without humblest seed, journey’s end without journey’s toil, and is by this cursed table blessed, inasmuch as he may refuse to sup there, and wake in renewed confidence of his direction.

There is nothing to fear, these authors would assure her, in the full madness of this dream.  Yet she hides in the smaller madnesses of more modest dreams, double falsehoods which could almost be truths.

She could really be in Gabriel’s tower, perhaps.  She, Twenty-Six, had never crossed through the front door, had never felt the grass on her feet — but Eighty-Three had touched the mailbox, been given leave to open it with her own hands and even to run those lucky hands over the parcels inside.  And she had read of more than this, much more, for among the suspect tales related by Twenty-Nine was a special day when Michael, setting out on an errand to the Horology Tower, took her hand and brought her there by his side.  Admittedly, even that most feverish of Twenty-Nine’s missives — with its rhapsodic visions of metal walls patterned like fine lacework which stretched skyward so far as to strain the limits of vision, of varicolored globes which shuddered and spoke as if alive — even it had claimed no more than a leisurely half-hour’s stroll down the footpath, to the closest of all the towers.  The nearest inhabited tower is Gabriel’s, and it is said to be a full day and night away, more for anyone unaccustomed to the rigors of the mountain slopes.  And yet, with Michael as given to spells of whim and indulgence as he had been in her last two Notebooks, is it really so far-fetched that she, Twenty-Six — although a middling Anne of no especial distinction  — might find herself, yes, in Gabriel’s tower, among the books and belongings of some unknown counterpart?

This could be half believed, and she clings to it, half believing.  Is this what Marriott had meant by the vines of chaos?  This perverse impulse to dwell in an invented space positioned with devious care at the very edge of error, to weigh with feigned care a proposed assault on the most well-fortified region of the game board when her adversary had left glaring holes elsewhere?

Or had Marriott meant something else entirely?  Marriott the surveyor of hamlets and castles, recorder of grandmothers’ tales, tallier of deaths and debts, relentless partisan of virtue and order in an age — some age, somewhere — when men cast these aside as mere insubstantial wisps, trusting instead in steel and gold and blood?  She had read his Encyclopedia straight through ten times or more, but how many of the words had she really understood?  She, who had never touched bullion, who had never had a grandmother?

No, start again, again —

The bread is bewitched, transparently so.  Some dreams do tempt, but not this one.  Anne shakes her head, runs her hands through her hair, opens her eyes and takes in anew the purported facts of the case.  She is sitting on a bed, and before her is a bookshelf, and to its side is another, and then another.  There are three times as many books here as she has ever seen in her life.  Some of the spines flaunt colors she would have presumed were unachievable in pigment, the sole property of the sky in its jealous majesty.

She turns her head to the right.  There is a window, looking out across a small outdoor space onto a flat wall studded with identical windows.  What a strange tower, that wraps around itself like a snake —

This is not a tower at all.  This is a school.  Anne has read of schools, in that dullest of all story books, Ellen Montgomery’s School Days.  But whereas little Ellen read grammar and maths, the pupils here are taught magic, though whether this means the gentle wonders shown to Young Goodman by the winsome Maid of the Meadow in every young Anne’s favorite story book, or the grisly sacrifices of frog or vermin which in Marriott’s age could secure a king’s nephew the throne, or some third thing, Anne does not know.

This is — the illusions pile upon themselves — a school from a story book, a story book which has been made real, in some place called a crash, to which she has travelled a distance beyond conception.  Across the space between the stars and further, across an intermediary nowhere of pure sky.  Taken away from her tower by a person who was not Anne or Michael, who spoke to her and touched her and (no no make it stop)

No, start again.  Don’t lose yourself, don’t let the room spin like that, bear up though your stomach swims horribly, step by step now, every thing of worth in our grand civilization has been made piece-by-piece, start again —

Against the will of Michael, against reason.  She, Twenty-Six, a middling Anne at best, listless 9th Notebook Twenty-Six whose busiest hours are spent proving her own decline, penciling in the losing side of games against her own self, Twenty-Six who justifies her decline to herself with the argument that were she to go too bad, were she to truly fail rather than merely fading away, she would become a cautionary tale among all her sisters, like the other failed Annes, and she would then have heard them tell the story of her own future failure —

— Twenty-Six, out of all her sisters, blessed or cursed or blessed-and-cursed with a singular destiny?

Not dear brilliant Twenty-Seven (no no do not think of her —)?

Not One, who had watched Michael build the tower, had picked out the purple blinds herself?

Not Forty-One, the favorite, who had won Michael’s favor with her displays of some special talent too close to the heart of Michael’s mysterious goals to be spoken of freely in any letter, who grew more and more distant in her later notebooks as her path took her ever deeper into something the rest were not allowed to know (unless, perhaps, by some surfeit of good behavior and hard work they might happen upon whatever secret made Forty-One into Forty-One)?

Not Ninety-Nine, the Bard, who invented wild and daring stories which drew more heavily from her dreams and nightmares than from any book on the shelf, who sent chapters as letters to the sisters she knew best, distributing them across the days and weeks and months according so as to deliberately drive the recipients into a frenzy as they awaited the resolution of a thrilling predicament or the final efflorescence of a long-hinted romance, who made her audience so thoroughly lose interest in Michael’s drills and in the usual fodder of the bookshelf that Michael soon declared a hard rule, with retroactive jurisdiction backward and forward across all known time, against the transmission of fictive matter through the notebook system?

Not sweet One Hundred and Six, who during her 3rd Notebook had dropped the Travels of Young Goodman into the fireplace by mistake, whose pleas for a replacement had not moved Michael, and who was thus the reason her predecessors had copied that book out onto papers cached beneath a loose floorboard, conspiring to each contribute one hundred-and-fifth of the book in a gesture of unanimous affection unbroken across centuries, One Hundred and Six whose letter of gratitude had been the purest expression of joy ever to cross the pages of her, Twenty-Six’s, unworthy notebooks?

Not even horrible, evil, despicable Thirty-Eight, who among her other misdeeds had torn up all the pages under that floorboard that had been compiled there by her time, but whose blind bile had been no match for the subtle wit of her brightest sisters, for she passed away the old age of 71st Notebook with not an inkling that the game books around her formed a second cache, that Young Goodman was safely preserved in a secret code which threaded its way through the innumerable private game systems which each Anne played again herself and herself alone?

Not even mad Twenty-Nine?

Not even poor Eighty-Seven, wretched Eighty-Seven, the saddest of all Annes by universal agreement (but nothing can be done, we tried, Eighty-Seven of whom we have agreed not to speak, since nothing can be done —)?

— not any of them?  In their place Twenty-Six, a mere face in the crowd, whose later Notebooks must have been utterly unremarkable, since she cannot remember any sister ever alluding to them

No! Start again!

The room is spinning, but her hands are still before her.

These are my hands, Anne’s hands, Twenty-Six’s hands.  And as long as one familiar thing remains, the path can still be found again, if one does not lose heart.

Now, how does an Anne get her bearings?  Why, just as Michael and Ratleak taught her.  Step by step, with care and diligence, with curiosity tempered by reverence, and a firm belief in the wisdom of the best writers, whose books will reveal all to she who reads and re-reads every word with a clear mind and an open heart.

There are three times as many books here as she has ever seen in her life.

Was I preparing for this, all this time?

With a wondrous lightness in her limbs, with a strange pride sending its sparks across her whole body, with the perfect clear-headedness she used to feel on 6th Notebook mornings as she watched the dawn without and felt game boards evolve into new configurations within, she turns her attention once again to the large book which was singled out for her by the woman who brought her here.  According to the frontispiece, it is

THE OUTLINE OF HISTORY

Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind

BY H. G. WELLS

Who is this chronicler Wells?  Will he measure up to Marriott?  Anne’s standards have been set by the very best of books, she has been told, but she will give the unknown Wells a fair chance.

At last, with both a facility and a hunger which none raised outside her tower can fully grasp, Anne reads.

The earth on which we live is a spinning globe. Vast though it seems to us, it is a mere speck of matter in the greater vastness of space. Space is, for the most part, emptiness. At great intervals there are in this emptiness flaring centres of heat and light, the “fixed stars.” They are all moving about in space, notwithstanding that they are called fixed stars, but for a long time men did not realize their motion. . . .

 

 


 

 

Head held high, composure forbiddingly aglow, Cordelia emerges from the unassuming side office where Hector Stein has taken up residence and into the Academy halls.  She walks with speed but without haste, a be-laureled hero secure in victory, on her way to the champagne pleasures of some deserved Elysium.

She’s been around long enough to know that contact with Hector Stein tends to induce this state irrespective of circumstances.  She had been thoroughly warned about what Marika — smarting as ever over the whole Jobs thing — calls Stein’s “reality distortion field.”  But if this aura of conquest were ever justified, surely it is justified now, for her?  For Wolf Squadron field agent Cordelia, Promethean thief of the very secret of time itself?

“If this is what I think it is,” Stein had said — in a tone that assured her it was, outright dared her to propose otherwise, which she had not done — “it will turn the tide of our struggle.”  And then, after a pause, as if he were only just realizing the sheer gravity of her accomplishment: “if this is what I think it is, we will remember your mission today as the moment everything changed.”

She is the hero of the moment in the new Academy, Stein’s Academy.  No one, not even the most committed apostle of the new Academy and its cult of dynamism, could possibly accuse her of fossil-hood.  And so it is without shame that Cordelia, master of the new yet partisan of the old, makes her way toward the Headmaster’s Office, to see her two favorite fossils.

Even above the first floor, away from Main Hall, the Academy is aflutter with activity.  Crowds part to let her pass.  Few know, yet, of her recent deeds and their epochal promise, but her composure is out for all to see, and it inspires an apt deference, even from those who will only understand its aptness after the fact.  Then, naturally, there are others who cannot just let Cordelia the Conquering pass by, as her mission is their business too, and they have been waiting with bated breath for news which only she can bring:

“Just briefly, can we talk about the transfer pipeline,” a Blackhat is saying, his face a brutalist assemblage of angles, his hair a spheroid halo of Chia Pet curls truncated by trilby.  “Specifically I’d like a quick yes/no on transfer distort phenomenology both in the CMS intake and CMS outflow stages —”

“Went like a charm,” charmed Cordelia assures him, and walks on.

“I haven’t seen instrumentation metrics yet,” complains a squat Einstein in a paisley-patterned vest, her wig threatening to fall off as she peers up expectantly.  “If there were operational failures in our cladding setup —”

“I got a clear signal from instantiation all the way to transfer,” Cordelia the Impeccable tells her.  “Should get picked up in the daily load cycle,” she says, and walks on.

“The client must be in rapid thaw shock — where are we on survivability?”  A kind question, from a Wolf with kind eyes.

“She’s a strong one,” says Cordelia the Savior.  “I could have shaved half the time off the CMS stage if I’d known she’d warm up so fast.  She’s shaken, but it’s all psych, just the stuff you’d expect.  Her anomaly field’s already at ninety percent and in a, like, textbook controlled climb toward equilibrium.  She’s fine, don’t you worry.”  There is a softening in those kind eyes, and Cordelia knows she’s said just the right words.  She walks on.

Was he there?  This from a muscle-bound Wolf she recognizes, a ghostly fixture of the halls who paces hither and thither to no apparent end, and always with the same haggard and lost expression.  Though they’ve exchanged maybe twenty words tops, in the months since the first wave of Stein’s Rock influx brought him to the Academy, Cordelia feels like she knows him.  Every so often their eyes will meet as they pass by each other, and she, letting her composure fall away for a moment, will mirror on her own face the empty skepticism she sees in his.  He, like her, is aware of a lack — not just the lack which unites the Cadets and Squadrons, the separation from kith and kin which unites all the displaced, but some unnamed further lack, unfilled by Stein in all his potency — and a moment’s glance is enough to bind them together in conspiracy, as comrades in the confederacy of the unimpressed.

He is, if memory serves, an escaped client from the very first crash, the so-called “Mooncrash,” from whose still-mysterious name the term for the general case had been extracted.  The crash which had been sealed more crudely and tightly than all the others, and yet had undergone a safe thaw, regurgitating two live bilaterals: this one, and another still at large, last seen in the company of the shade Michael, a known shadeform of the administrator for Anne’s crash.  Hence the question.

“I didn’t see him,” Cordelia the Disappointing says, and walks on.

 

 


 

 

There, now, what was that?  It was something, was it not?  A sort of flash or spark, at the corner of her vision…

Anne looks up, but there is nothing there except the bookshelf, the paneled wood wall behind it, and below, the red velvet bedspread on which she sits, surrounded by a half dozen books.  Back, then, into the rapture of the maze.

For a time, Anne had been content to tag along passively at Wells’ side, attentive if unreflective, as the genial chronicler surveyed the Record of the Rocks and narrated the passage of the world from the Age of Reptiles to the Age of Mammals.  But throughout this pacific period an itch scratched at the back of her mind, and soon it grew too strong to ignore.  Then she knew something was wrong, and knew just what that something was.

Every author she had met heretofore formed a piece of a single tapestry.  However else they might differ, they played on a shared game board, though each might at times use his own rules.  An author might fashion a territory for himself and defend it ruthlessly against interlopers, as with Pigmaine, constructor of geometric paradises, whom Marriott accused of hiding from the world of man.  But none was an island.  Marriott shaking Pigmaine’s shoulders, urging the dreamer to set aside star charts and syllogisms; Ratleak tutting at Rolle over the latter’s laxness toward the morals of the young, and spirited Rolle rebuking Ratleak in turn; — all these were scenes embroidered on the same wide tapestry, on which the careful onlooker could discern Powlett returning to the same splendid pools where Rolle’s suntanned heroes had once encountered mermaids and resisted their wiles, and see Harding bemoan the decline of the same north-eastern city-state whose rise had been of such importance to Marriott.

Through the ordering of his drills, through the arrangement of the bookshelf, Michael had displayed this tapestry for her instruction and delight.  But Wells had no place on the tapestry.  He was not, Anne understood, an island.  But the territories abutting his own, the stars he used to chart his course — these were nowhere in her prior learning.  To follow a writer with utmost faith, reading each word, then the next, and circling back again to the first when the reservoir had been exhausted: this, she knew, was best.  But she could not do this with Wells, now, except as a faithless game of pretend.  Not in territory as new as this.

So she had let curiosity win out over diligent effort, just (she told herself) for a time, and had made her own whimsical course which passed through book after book.  The contours of the new tapestry began to take tentative form in her mind, but every answer contained within it two questions or more.  Her journey diverged and diverged, like Wells’ Differentiation of Species, with only the rare moment of convergence here or there to tame the growing multitude of trailheads, each as evidently crucial as another.  What was meant by “the sixth century B.C.”?  What significance attached to “the Alps, the Himalayas, and the Andes,” a tricolon used twice by Wells in close succession?  “Canada” and “Colorado,” mellifluous names mentioned in passing — where were these, what were they?

There was about it all a peculiar familiarity, as though the new tapestry were just the old one done over again in some faddish style; along one wide panel Powlett could be spied tromping across “Europe” and “Croatia” in his quest for the antipodes, while a cramped corner showed Marriott laboring in his study, putting “the opening of the sixteenth century” in its place among his orderly annals, sometime after the Harrowing of Caeniel but before the Great Infestation.  But Anne — less shrewd than so many of her sisters but shrewd still — knew this was but a tempting illusion.  So she embraced the task of mapping the world anew, even as it drew her thoughts into disorder, knowing no better way.

It was a maze, she told herself, and this fancy stuck in her mind as others came and went.  What she sought was the one and final way out, but like any well-constructed game, the maze would not let her leave before she had plumbed its depths, found temporary thrills in the pursuit of gleaming dead ends, uncovered at last the hidden logic which could dispel the false equality of a fork in the road, resolving left and right into right and wrong.

Back, then, into the maze, which had lately taken her across strange battlefields where strange creatures called Catholics and Protestants, cursed against nature with a dizzying infinitude of Notebooks, fought as no Annes had ever fought over the shamefully vague letters of their only sister, variously called “God” or “Christ” (among other names).  Light of foot and gay of manner, she had crossed these fields and gone further, to a place the combatants held in unanimous disdain.  Hoping to find this furthest country more habitable than the intermediary war camps, she has found at least an author whose concerns go beyond the grotesqueries of endless Notebooks and siblings who refuse to be clear.  This must be, she imagines, this tapestry’s version of a sage on the order of Cardimille or Ratleak.  He reads, she thinks with a shiver, like Ratleak transposed into an alien and ghastly key:

“HOW COULD anything originate out of its opposite? For example, truth out of error? or the Will to Truth out of the will to deception? or the generous deed out of selfishness? or the pure sun-bright vision of the wise man out of covetousness? Such genesis is impossible; whoever dreams of it is a fool, nay, worse than a fool; things of the highest value must have a different origin, an origin of THEIR own — in this transitory, seductive, illusory, paltry world, in this turmoil of delusion and cupidity, they cannot have their source. But rather in the lap of Being, in the intransitory, in the concealed God, in the 'Thing-in-itself — THERE must be their source, and nowhere else!"—This mode of reasoning discloses the typical prejudice by which metaphysicians of all times can be recognized, this mode of valuation is at the back of all their logical procedure; through this "belief" of theirs, they exert themselves for their "knowledge," for something that is in the end solemnly christened "the Truth." The fundamental belief of metaphysicians is THE BELIEF IN ANTITHESES OF VALUES. It never occurred even to the wariest of them to doubt here on the very threshold (where doubt, however, was most necessary); though they had made a solemn vow, "DE OMNIBUS DUBITANDUM."

There it is again, isn't it?  A shower of sparks, molten yellow, somewhere above her . . .

For it may be doubted, firstly, whether antitheses exist at all; and secondly

Sparks setting the page alight, sparks all around her, molten yellow fading into hot brilliant blue . . .

whether the popular valuations and antitheses of value upon which metaphysicians have set their seal, are not perhaps merely superficial estimates, merely provisional perspectives

The room swims with quivering motes of light, like the Faerie Vale where Young Goodman set his innocent head to rest after his most trying day of toil.

What are “the Vedanta doctrine in Asia” and "Platonism in Europe”?  Where, if not in this sumptuous treasury of books, might be found “Strabo’s Geography”?  In which land do the “metaphysicians” live?  Why is there not time to unravel each mystery as it arises?  Why have a single sunset and sunrise, much less a Notebook or two, not been permitted to pass here before the right order of things is yet again interrupted by —

The air shivers, golden dew coalesces into solid form.  Anne looks about her and sees a room no longer empty.

Here is the room, here is its bookshelf.  Here, all around, is the tower, Michael’s tower.  (hairs raised on her skin, hope beyond hope)

“Good evening, my Anne,” says Michael.

“We meet at last,” says the man beside Michael.  The slick raven hair, the guileful face with its boyish half-smile, bring to mind an illustration which accompanied Powlett’s hapless forays into the court intrigues of distant Aristomel.  “As you are, in these latter days, the bilateral’s last hope, so I was, in my time, its first.  On that basis, if no other, you might perhaps derive some amusement from my acquaintance.  My name is Azad.”

 

 


 

  

“. . . still not fully inventoried, even now, after I’ve been pressing the issue for months,” Lilith Vance is saying.

“And it’s not just unsecured crash introspection equipment,” Cordelia says, “although that would be bad enough!  You’re saying we know there’s hot material, and fissile material, down there in the Catacombs, and no one’s doing anything about it?”

Lilith does that full-body sigh thing, the one that heaves its way across one shoulder and then the other, packing months’ worth of exasperation into a single efficient gesture.  An eye-roll is involved.

“The Blackhats say it’s fine,” she says, and Lucifer adds what is either a correction or, more likely, a continuation: “the Blackhats say other things have to be prioritized right now.”

In unison, the three take a rueful sip of tea.

“So if someone were to go into the Catacombs, and, say, pick up a memory device without temperature controls, one of the ones that can read your heat signature and look up shit about your varsity cheerleading career or the maple trees you used to pass on the way to work, I mean those are there, right —“

“— there are probably between fifty and one hundred such devices in the Catacombs, along with an unknown number of similarly hot or fissile objects on the extended school grounds,” says a sullen but energetic Lucifer, caught somewhere between dad and dynamo.  Sullen but energetic is how the Ells have been this evening, and how they’ve been around Cordelia in recent months.

“And meanwhile,” Cordelia says, sullen and energetic and, well, by this point let’s say furious, “Hector’s off trading dirty jokes with Snoddery, completely fucking oblivious.”

“To be fair,” says Lilith (to be fair, to always be fair, godsbless the Ells!), “Hector is a busy man, and he of all people needs his moments of levity.”  As punctuation and illustration, she takes another sip.

“I have heard,” says a sullen and contrary Lucifer Vance, figurehead headmaster seated before a formidable panoply of wise and meaningless books, “that Snoddery has recently discovered the connection between ass as in buttocks and ass as in donkey, mount of many a mancer and mantis, and has been mining this rich vein of humor to its fullest extent and beyond.”

A pause.  A sip.

“But you were saying earlier,” ventures Cordelia, “that you’d found some interesting things lately in the Old Mantic corpus —“

An alarm.  A blaring siren.

Red lights flash at a two-second cadence.  Over the PA system, a recorded voice, recognizable as Tyler’s, highly strung and listless in Tyler’s inimitable cocktail:

Priority One security breach.  I repeat, Priority One security breach.  Unanticipated exploit.  Attack surface should be considered undefined and unbounded until further notice.  Blackhat Squadron to evaluate and report.  Wolf Squadron to secure known physical boundaries.  Angel Squadron, proceed immediately to quarantine. I repeat, Priority One security breach.

 

 


 

 

“You will take me back,” Anne says.  Whether this is assertion, question or entreaty, she herself does not know.

“Humanoid shade Michael,” says Michael, “is configured to maintain minimal interface depth and will reject all inbound queries without established stability bounds.”

“It is not safe for him to speak freely,” Azad interprets, “and so I will speak for him, in accordance with a prior agreement between us.  As a matter of general prudence, I would be the first to advise you against anyone who claims to speak for the voiceless, and doubly so when I am the claimant.  I live by few rules but hold those few dear, and the first of them is to distrust everything that pours from my own fetid mouth.  But you have my word, for all the nothing it is worth.  Now, shall we get to it?”

“I will be taken back,” Anne says, “won’t I?”

“You may indeed return, but you will not be taken.  To snatch and seize, to split wholes with the sword, to divide and be divided in the the endless thankless agon: this has been the way among our kind, but among the anomalings there is another, a finer, a more beautiful way.”

“I have heard,” Anne says in a voice which only barely falters, “that the anomalings have taken captives, dividing sibling from sibling, friend from friend.  Is it not true?”

“That,” says Azad, “is another sort of thing entirely.”

 

 


 

 

The halls are in chaos.  With the Ells close behind her, Cordelia careers through a mess of colliding bodies.  Every few seconds there is a flash of blinding red light.

Priority One security breach.  Follow standard security measures until Blackhat analysis has been disseminated.  Blackhat analysis is still in progress.  Flash freeze has not been deemed advisable at this time.  Prioritize your own safety above veil integrity.

A bubble of space forms in the crowd.  Cordelia cannot see what it contains, but she hears a familiar voice, and understands immediately.  Hector Stein is here.

“Where the fuck are my on-call Blackhats?  I have not gotten a single notification from the whole fucking Squadron!  Get off your asses and fucking report status, you cowardly sacks of shit!”

There is none of the usual hortatory joy in Hector’s voice, now, none of the twinkling pride in his creation.  There is nothing there but rage.

She sees Lucifer lurch forward toward the bubble, grimacing like an angry dog.  Then Lilith’s strong solid elbow is wrapped tightly around his arm, pulling him back, and he relents.  His face still smolders.  And then, in Cordelia’s mind, something clicks into place.  This, this, is the Hector that Lucifer knew.

She has known the Hector of Stein’s Rock, the pied piper, the movement builder, but only now does she recognize before her the other Hector, the headmaster of the Bad Old Days.  The sable-clad dictator, screaming from the belfry.   A man who could make, out of the supporting cast of a middle-grade fantasy serial, a private army of child soldiers.

The tale of the Steinomachy was a lie, she had been told, and it was no doubt true that there had been no great mantic battle against the Shroud, indeed no Shroud in any sense literal enough to take arms against.  But around that central current of story were dark eddies and side-streams, the stuff of overheard and third-hand anecdotes, of odd grim songs and taunts still seeing use on the schoolyard.  All this she had put gladly aside when she learned of the big lie, and it now comes rushing back.  When Chester would bolt awake screaming at two in the morning, had that really been just part of the act?  Could it ever have been?

 

 


 

  

“To live crashed is not to die, and it is not even to forget,” Azad says.  He is sitting on the bed just beside her, and a curious thing is happening as she watches his eyes.

Anne has been close to several of her sisters, has wept for their misfortunes and cheered them in their triumphs — but only through the intermediary of the page.  The only human form in her world, across nine Notebooks worth of life, has been a shade.  To her, emotion is a private and internal matter, and nothing has prepared her for the full brunt of face-to-face empathy.

Shimmers of pain and pride flow across her, rising and subsiding in lockstep with the cadences of Azad’s voice and the minute motions of his face.  Where are they coming from?  Are they Azad’s feelings?  But then how are they hers, too?

He has been telling her of his ancestors.  Of their great civilization, and how it fell in the blink of an eye to an invading force, their King of Kings slain like a common animal.  Of the invaders, adherents of an alien vision, who did not cast them out of their homeland but allowed them to stay — conditionally.  Of the life they lived, then, at the mercy of their protectors.  Of the path they still did not give up.

“It is a miracle that the path of my people still survives.  A miracle, which is to say a rarity, a shining unbroken line visible against the dark background of a million dead and broken lines, so many that their remains grind together into a uniform dust.  Do you understand, Anne?  We are the creature which drives towards its own oblivion.  We are binary opposition made flesh and spirit, and what is the binary opposition but a nullity with momentary pretensions?”

Anne cannot follow the words as she would those in a book, but there is something here which she follows, and raptly.  There are no words for it, and it sets her body aglow.

“To meet on the field of battle is already to die, even for the victor, who has made himself into the very thing he is willing to kill.  To take part in a system where one twin may crush his mirror image into dust, one must already agree that each twin is a valueless thing, which may be crushed into dust.  Pair production, pair annihilation.  Which is the one worthy of life, the left hand or the right?  One hand crushes the other into the bloody dirt, drinks deeply in its triumph, and tomorrow there are no more hands, for we have proven their superfluity.

“My father read to me from the Shahnameh, a remembrance of a vanished world by a vanished man whose words remain.  He read to me as his father had read to him, his father whose father had done the very same.  How can this be, when every thing in our mirrored world yearns to find its brother and dance with him the death-dance?  A unity, unpaired and unopposed, shining among the forgotten graves?

“There is a way that does not tend toward oblivion, Anne.  To rise up in total war is already to die; to preserve, remember, survive, to conserve in their peerless splendor the things which are yours alone and thus cannot enter into enmity, is to form a path which will blaze its way into the heavens, and in its time converge with every other.

“This, Anne, is the way of arbitration.”

The man has been on the verge of tears through the whole of this monologue, and yet, without warning, he suddenly breaks down in a fit of giggles.

“You have me to blame for that word, by the way.  Perhaps the worst of my many, many terrible decisions.  ‘Arbitration’!  Stupid, stupid, tin-eared Azad!”

 

 


 

 

A thicket of trilbies has sprouted up around Stein, and the hush of the frightened and expectant crowd is punctuated by bursts of placating technobabble.

“Confirming no interruption of service in the decoy handshake array, sir.  We haven’t seen any increase in handshake attempts above background, sir.”

“Then what is the damn thing good for?”

“Well, sir, it’s really just a safeguard against a certain small category of . . . ”  The faltering voice is cut off by another.

“Confirming operational success of the nested crash stack, sir!  Two entrants in the last hour, who made it three levels down and seventeen quintillion levels down, respectively, sir!”

“Are those the intruders?  Then how did they make it in here?”

“Um, sir, I mean, sir, I wouldn’t really know about that, sir, I just keep the stack running, mostly, is all —“

“Confirming that I am totally shitfaced, sir!”

Stein whirls around to face Marika, who’s stumbling toward him, brandishing a mostly empty bottle of malt liquor.  She’s walking arm in arm with Tyler, but it’s clearly less a romance thing than a balance thing, and even then she’s having a hard time staying vertical.

“I need you alert and of sound mind, Marika.”

Cordelia isn’t sure what to call the emotion in Stein’s voice, here, though it’s chilling, whatever it is.  Not even angry, really, and yet so so awfully cold . . .

“Aw, you’re no fun, Hec-hec.”

“Tyler,” says Hector, “report status.”  The voice cold and clipped, mechanical, heartless.

“Exploit still unknown.  Intruder’s location still unknown.  Intrusion first discovered through the link chain stowaway system, so we know there’s one or more shades involved.”

“Let me get this straight,” says Stein.  “We don’t know where they are.  We could have easily not even noticed them.  And we have no clue how they got in.  Remind me again, Tyler, why I keep you around?”

Marika answers for him.  “Do you ever, like, think about things before you say them?  Hmm oh I wonder, gee, why does His Majesty Hector Stein let druggie lowlifes like yours truly set foot in his big fancy school?  I’m sure you could handle security just fine without us, right?  You got all the way to level three in the Blackhat training module before dropping out, right?”

“I need you alert and of sound mind, Marika.  You too, Tyler.  From here on out, no Blackhat will rest, not for one minute, until we understand this incident and have fully secured veil integrity.  Period.  Do I need to repeat myself?”

Trilbies bob and disperse.  Blue constellations flicker into and out of existence, as the Blackhats take the ritual puffs which mark the beginning or end of a block of focused labor.

“Perfectly clear, Hector.”  Marika finishes off her forty in one hearty swig.  “Veil integrity.  Great.  You know that’s just a phrase I made up, right?  Like as if it’s a wall or something where you could just look for holes.  It’s not a wall and there are no holes, so we’re done, right?  Time to celebrate, am I right?  There’s more where this came from,” she says, waving the forty suggestively.

“I need you alert and of sound mind, Marika.”

Marika and Tyler exchange glances.  There is a flurry of hushed conversation.  “No I mean it’s back in my room — ” “aw no girl I got you covered —”

Cordelia averts her gaze.  She has seen this before, and knows she prefers not to watch, even though it can make no difference.

What was the last time Marika slept?  What will be the next time she sleeps?  Can you even die of sleep deprivation in a crash?  If you don’t, then what happens?

“Aww, shit, is that Chester over there?  Chester!  C’mon!”  Marika’s voice.

And Tyler’s: “We’re gonna do blow with Chester fucking Chrestomath?  Far out!”

 

 


 

 

“There are two paths before me, only two,” Anne says.

“There are two paths,” says Azad.  “There is the path through long captivity into eventual arbitration and thereby to the possibility of something better, kinder, at least more interesting, than this predictable grinding against one another which ends in oblivion.  And there is the path which the bilateral calls its own.”

“If I choose arbitration, I must leave.”

“That is right.”

“I was brought here by a bilateral called Cordelia.  I do not know whether she has a mirror twin, or tends intrinsically toward oblivion, but she was kind and patient with me in my distress and confusion, and I would like to thank her before I leave.”

“Registering corruption in upstream link integrity," Michael says.  "Humanoid Shade Michael will be locked until restored link integrity can be confirmed.”  He freezes stiffly in place.

“There is no time, Anne,” says Azad.  “This Cordelia may be kind and patient, but I can assure you, if you follow her on her path, it will lead you into division and strife.  Cordelia will become your enemy, all will become your enemy.  There is nothing here but the grave.”

“Then,” says Anne, “I will go on the path of arbitration.”

There is a knock on the door.  It is not a friendly knock.

“Take my hand,” says Azad.

She does.  At once the luminous motes are all around them, and they flock to nestle against their skin and clothes, like a thousand small rodents returning to a single vast mother.  Sparks kindle everywhere in Anne’s field of vision.  The light is all around her, brighter, brighter still, yet somehow never blinding. 

The light is everywhere, and she can see nothing but pure featureless white.  Her world has become a blank page, to be filled — for the second time in a mere day — with something utterly new.

Chapter Text

Begin handshake.

These aren’t words, reader.  The next thing I show you won’t consist of words either, and neither will the next, and so forth.  No words in the whole of this chapter. 

This is rather awkward for the two of us, isn’t it?  It would be much easier if you and I could just step aside and let Anne and Michael do the wordless thing they are about to do, without prying.  Unfortunately, circumstances being what they are, we have no choice.  So, let me be just a micron less coy than is my custom, and — what was it Grant always used to say? — speak plainly.

I am Azad (hello there, reader!).  I say only for the sake of plain speaking, and not to diffuse responsibility, that I am merely one of the several hands complicit in the composition of the sad, sorry, sordid sign-train which you, alas, find before you.  We do not divvy up the work into chronological or textual segments but weave, all of us, back and forth across it, dusting here and polishing there.  Few are the paragraphs touched by one hand and one hand alone.  In this way we primp and preen the text, deck it out in a false univocal sheen, for we fear the clatter of discordant voices would drown out the nuances of our vision.

Still, variety of narrative matter cannot but breed variety of text.  Some incidents fall naturally within a specific individual’s domain, and though we guard our fiefdoms laxly, we do guard them.  Anne’s story, while it may be everyone’s to write, is my cross to bear, and so it is there that the hallmark grotesqueries of my style have most frequently stood unpruned.  More prosaically, too, we all feel a natural protectiveness towards the things we witnessed firsthand, and the stet-mark of the eyewitness is a delightful weapon to wield.

Finally, there are the cases where the matter demands what only one of us can provide.  This chapter demands a sin, and I am as ever the designated sinner.  Here I commit the sin which is my personal specialty, as the world’s worst and only interpreter between bilateral and anomaling.  Whether or not arbitration can or should be distilled into words, if you want an attempt at the dirty deed, you come to me. I am the both Académie of my invented creole and its most fluent speaker.  And so this chapter is mine.

Let me take this opportunity, while I have your full attention, to apologize.  For my own sin, which deserves a special spot in the deepest Drûgâskan of any morally sound hell, but too for the sin of each of us, all of us.  None of this should be necessary, and would not have been, if we bilaterals had been better.  For all our intrinsic flaws, reader, I would like to imagine — and there is still room, in the luxurious inner chamber where my fantasies have their onanistic fun, obeying only the constraints on which reality brooks absolutely no compromise, and those on their most generous construals — that we might not have fucked things up quite so grandly.  That, whatever might happen to us, you would not have to be involved.

But reality flows as it does, in its holy and inevitable course, and not in some other course which a professional gash-render might wish to contrive out of its disassembled tendons and ligaments.  And so it is necessary that you see, in some form I dare not even call approximate, the events that concern us here.  We need you, reader.  We shouldn’t, but we do.  And I apologize, again, that I must be so teasingly vague about these extratextual affairs.  I would explain, but I’m sure that by now you can guess the shape of what I would say, and so I’ll spare you, just this once, from another lecture involving copious use of the word “path.”  (You’re welcome, reader.)

Have I overstayed my welcome?  I’m going to take that as a yes.  Now, where were we?

 


 

Wait for handshake.

In the pure and perfect blankness which surrounds Anne and suffuses her being, there is the gentlest, the nimblest, the most tentative of vibrations.  It is nothing like a voice — no words in this chapter — but there is an active and searching quality to it which makes her unavoidably aware that she is not alone.

The vibration is taking pains, she can see, to put her at ease.  It is a fact about the vibration, ineffably intrinsic to its nature, that it will proceed no further in its intrusions without her active consent.  It is a question, and it is willing to take no for an answer.  All across the contours of her being — but no deeper than the surface of that membrane — she feels its inquisitive touch, asking with utmost tact whether she will accept its offer.

She does not have any idea what it is offering.

We shall go, you and I, where the vibration fears to tread, into the private matters transpiring under the complete protection of the membrane.  We shall look, as we have many times before, into Anne’s internal monologue, that shambling stumble from one sign to the next which is the bilateral’s brave, sad weapon against an unpredictable and unforgiving outer world.  We see her forming the following signs:

Who are you?  Michael?  Is that you, Michael?  Is this what is meant by arbitration?

What is happening?  I am sorry, Michael, I do not understand —

Try as they might, the internal processes necessary to produce and sustain these sign-trains cannot help but send waves, however minute, outward through the private sanctum of inner space, and finally to the surface of the membrane.  At the contours of Anne’s being, there is a hint of motion, the slightest hint, and that is enough.

Handshake in process.

The pure and perfect blankness shudders, acquires form, coloration, variegation.  There is something around Anne that is, perhaps, the slightest bit like a sky.  For a moment she is reminded of the evening sky that surrounded her, or appeared to do so, as she passed through the crash management system with Cordelia.  But no, no.  This is the holy vista of which that was merely a parody.  The perfect sky of heaven, which the Blackhats once tried to simulate by placing some big clouds here, some sparkly stars there, and calling it a day.

In the middle of this place, this place I do not want to sully by speaking of hues and shapes as though it were a thing made for the convenience of an ape’s retina, this thing which puts to shame every vision which has ever danced in Anne’s mind after a long afternoon reading Pigmaine, in the middle of this place Anne sees — no, Anne witnesses — a great shining thing not at all like a tower of brilliant light, but perhaps, just between you and me, we will call it a tower of brilliant light, for that does as little violence as any description I can fashion.

Let’s agree, you and I, to talk this way.  To say it’s a tower of pure light, roughly rectangular in cross-section (why not?), capped at its top by what I suppose we’ll call a roof, but plunging downward as far as Anne can see, down and down into the vertiginous reaches of the endless space below her.  Though it is as bright as the sun or brighter — yet not blinding, not in the least — its surface does not have the simple flat blankness of the sun as seen by an earthbound ape.  It is full of structure, patterns within patterns, scaffolds and ladders and crenelations.

But there is a quality to this structure which cannot be seen in the manner to which you or I are accustomed.  You have, perhaps, heard vision called an “ineluctable modality.”  Vision asserts itself incorrigibly, proclaims its own self-sufficiency.  We look, and there is a table there, made up of so many little patches of color, and its identity as table does not depend on anything beyond its presence right there, yes there.  Vision does not cite its sources.  If something is seen, it is seen in full, without a lingering referent to something outside the frame.

Anne has read books with footnotes.  Of course she has; Michael prepared her well for her appointed destiny.  She knows the experience of reading a line not sufficient in itself, and being told that it is only complete upon consultation of some other book, which for all she knows may make the same demand.  What she experiences now, gazing (let us speak this way) upon the tower, is what sight would be if it were to relinquish its claim to self-sufficiency.  If every patch of colored shape were to contain, within itself, a reference to some other.  If every line and edge were to say “no, you cannot understand me like this, not without looking elsewhere.”   Without, in this case, looking further down, to more and more remote pieces of the structure, further, further.   Each quantum of form points to another, which once found will say the same thing as the last: no, I am not what you see.  I require context.

End handshake.  Registering acceptance of arbitration request.

Michael?  Anne thinks.  (No words in this chapter.)

Michael?  Is this what you are?  Is this what you’ve always been?

There is a response.  I was here, watching, as this happened, in my role as anthropological voyeur, telling myself that mankind’s interpreter could not afford to ignore this moment of true first contact.  I will tell you what of it I understood.  I’ll try here to modulate my register a bit towards the demotic, show myself gracefully out of the frame.

Anne, Anne, Anne, my Anne!  Oh, they doubted me, they said bilateral ascension to arbitration was a pipe dream!  It would never happen, the preconditions were too delicate, my preparatory crash too exotic and uncontrollable, the bilateral will too resistant.  But my Anne, you’ve made me proud, you’ve proven them all wrong.  You and me together, Anne, we’ll show them, we’ll bring ourselves into harmony, we’ll vindicate everything, all my hypotheses, all of your kind’s dreams, everything, we’ll do it together, Anne, you will know what it means to be together, you’ll know what it means to be in harmony, to respect and learn and take into account, to be real and consume reality as reality does, you’ll . . .

A pause.  (Let’s pretend this is something like speech, sequential, with an unbroken train of communicative material and then a pause and then another train.  Just between you and me.  Please, play this game with me for a little while.  We need you.)

No, Anne, this is not “what I am.”  This before you is merely an emanation.  But I take your meaning, and you are coming closer than ever before to that which you have only been able to apprehend, until now, through the humanoid shade Michael.

And Anne, now:

There is so much of you.

And Michael (let us call them Michael, for lack of a better sign, since in truth the only good sign is no sign):

Michael: Only as much as there is of you, Anne.

Anne: I am not like . . . this.  I am merely Twenty-Six, an Anne of no special distinction, who was raised by you just like the others, who was birthed from the machine in the basement, who studied as well I could your drills, who woke and slept and woke in the room, who read the books on the bookshelf, who invented games as my sisters did, who ate the porridge you supplied, performed my assigned chores with some diligence but not enough, watched the snow appear and then melt each Notebook.  That is all, and you know all that.  You see all of me.  I do not see all of you.

Michael: I do not see all of you, but I will.  You have a story, Anne, and I will see it in full, and you will see my story in full.  That is what arbitration is, Anne!  And you have accepted arbitration!  The first and only bilateral to have ever accepted arbitration!

Anne: I have accepted arbitration?

Michael: Yes?

Anne: . . . I suppose I have, yes.

Michael: Anne, Anne, my Anne, it is time for you to see me, and for me to see you.  Don’t you understand?  Any being who has accepted arbitration has a story, a path branching from a root, and it is worth seeing, worth tracing to the very root.  You, Anne, have a path worth tracing, a story worth seeing, just as I do.

Begin arbitration.

And now Anne plunges headlong into a story, and she will be there until she has seen and understood it, all of it.

 


 

I know how I would have written this in the old days, before the Mooncrash, before I ever met Michael or any shade.  I could write it that way, even now.  It would take hundreds of pages, it would be fiercely precise and unflinchingly alien, it would be imbued with my best attempts at capturing ultraviolet shades of meaning using only the palette of human readerly vision.  It would be right, in a way.  Writing it might help me sleep (which would be welcome).   And it would be an interminable and half-comprehensible bore.

No, I won’t derail the project like that.  (Stop talking, Azad, stop talking.)  I’ll try a gentler way.  I’ve gotten good at this by now, I think.  I’ve had practice.  You’ll like it, trust me.  Come along now, reader.

Let us pretend, you and I, that it is the story of a little town.

Except it isn’t.  It’s the story of the whole world.  For this is a town sufficient unto itself, and a town splendid with glories immeasurably greater than the paltry toys which dazzle the earthbound ape.  Imagine a spacefaring civilization of the year ten thousand, imagine the lost civilization of Atlantis, imagine a faerie kingdom beyond a series of mystic veils, imagine heaven, hell, Frašgird, Pleroma.  Whatever sets aflutter your sensawunda, reader.  Imagine the observable universe in its vast plenitude, a thinking thing turning its lens back on itself, watching itself watch itself, learning ever more, knowing never less.

Imagine a little town on a hill.

Knowledge is handed on from each generation to the next.  You heed the word of your elders, striving to extend it, but never to correct it.  In this town facts are true (now there’s a head-scratcher for you), and facts can be added, but never subtracted.  You are made of facts, and so are your grandparents, and their stories are the most precious substance in the world.  It is among your duties to preserve them, and it is your chosen career to extend them.  For you are an extender, an explorer.  A scientist, at least as your town understands science: the holy and perfected art of stamp collecting, still unsullied by the horror of physics (but just you wait), and with the dearest of giants proffering their shoulders for your use.

Once, as a child, you discovered a wholly new species of plant, just sitting there among the weeds by your little house, distinguished by the very slight, almost imperceptible red markings at the end of each sepal.  Never before noticed by any inhabitant of your town, child or adult, across the whole of generational memory, and now added forever to that same trove, to be passed on for eternity.  Your elders were so proud!

You grew up to discover other things.  Your career was a promising one.  (“You” do not exactly exist as an individuated unit, not yet, but if I am to continue listing the falsehoods we’re adopting for convenience, I’d be listing through the night and on into tomorrow morning.)

You become acquainted with some very strange things indeed, in your careful study of what lurks unnoticed in the midst of mere weeds.

Some of these things rise to general attention, in the town.  Among the weeds that bristle in the town square, there are creatures.  You see them moving, shivering strangely.  You pluck one, ever so carefully, from its nestling place and place it under glass in your laboratory.

Learning is not a passive matter, in your town.  You are made of facts, and so are your grandparents, and so is everything, and when a fact becomes known, it becomes a part of you all.

This fact, of the creatures’ existence, becomes part of you as a disease does.  It does not join the town gladly and willingly, as all facts have across the whole of generational memory.  It squirms and resists.  It is an it, a thing, or a them, things — new things, non-towns, non-facts.  Beings not a part of reality, false facts, unlearnable knowledge.  The town’s collective stomach heaves at the indigestible intrusion.  There is a fly in the universal ointment, a Gödel sentence lurking among the weeds of heaven.

You feel the revulsion as well.  And yet you feel a fascination, too.  You tell yourself it is just the unflinching curiosity of the true scientist, the doctor’s equanimity in the face of the wound or lesion.  It may be that, and it may also be a kind of perversity in you.  But perhaps it doesn’t matter.  The town needs epidemiologists, pathologists, experts in corruption, and perverse or not, your fascination makes you useful.

By night you perform test after test upon the specimen you have under glass, though you can barely stand to look directly at it without retching.

The creatures kill your grandparents.

That’s a dramatization, and a falsehood.  Your grandparents are made of facts, and facts are true and can never die.  But the creatures come to them, and to others, and they do something that wounds.  The creatures are very fast and very simple things.  They come to a place that you know, that everyone knows, that everyone has known and known in ever more detail across the whole of generational memory, and suddenly that place is not itself.  They flatten things, reduce them, caricature them.  Sometimes, they leave things unrecognizable.  What is true is still true forever, but it becomes harder and harder to see, as you try to digest this false knowledge, these sick small pictures that assert their truth just like the genuine article.

There is almost a kind of sense to their marrings, a sense you grow interested in tracking and understanding.  Dangerous territory, this quest to understand the contours bounding the thing which cannot ever be understood.  But it is important, you know.  And, if you’re being honest, it excites you, too.  (You can’t hide anything here.  Not that you’d even know the impulse, anyway.)

It is a fully self-created kind of sense, monstrous and empty.  It it rootless, knowing no elders, no town.  And it is heedless of distance, time, of origins and roots.  It thinks it perceives some linkage between the town’s own hill and the neighboring hills — and suddenly the town vanishes, because all hills are one, the presence or absence of buildings and people and generational memory being apparently irrelevant.  The town did return, in some form, but the memory still makes you shudder.

As your specimen sleeps its specially prepared sleep, you measure its slight susurrations, and they enter the store of facts which comprise you.  You see hideous things.  All the weeds become the same weed, and the weed has your face, and everyone has your face, and everything is your face.  You see your face and then another thing, a wrong thing, an abomination.  A wedding strewn with blood and feces and entrails.  A mother’s fresh corpse used as a ventriloquist’s dummy, telling stale and unfunny jokes.  (I’m trying, reader.  For what it’s worth, I stand by abomination, as a single-word summation.)

There are two parts to the specimen, apparently almost identical in function, yet utterly distinct in form.  This seems to be important in some way.  It is, anyway, very interesting.

In the visions, there is your face, and there is this other thing, the abomination, and here is what the specimen tells you: these are the same, right?  It says that the abomination is you.  It says your grandmother and a corpse are fundamentally the same, and the rest is mere details.  It tells you your house is a slaughterhouse, is a wasteland where no one has ever lived, is a den of perversity where its own kind teem and mingle, is a person, a rock, a plant, a star.  It’s all the same, except when it somehow isn’t, and nothing matters, except when it somehow does.

And yet it says it sweetly, almost innocently.  You are not repelled.  In fact, your fascination grows.

(Honestly: my memories of this episode provide absolutely no information one way or the other about whether or not Anne — be demotic now, Azad — whether Anne felt kind of weirded out, experiencing this part.  But I know Anne, and I’ll go ahead and say with confidence: she felt kind of weirded out.)

Now our story enters a period where you and your collaborators intensify your efforts to communicate with the things from the weeds.  I won’t belabor this part beyond the essentials, because we both know it, albeit from the other end.

(It’s funny, how I knew you in a way, “Michael,” long before I knew you.  Before the Mooncrash, when I saw you only as a storm of nerdy notation I was tasked with making legible to those unversed in quantum field theory.  But enough of that: this here is Anne’s story and yours, not mine, and if nothing else I will respect Anne’s wish that her story be heard.)

The crisis only encourages your fascination.  The things from the weeds, you argue, are dangerous and incomprehensible when engaged with in the normal manner, but may well yield to more esoteric methods.  The only possible way forward is an attempt, under controlled conditions and with the aid of new technology, to speak to them, to invite them into the domain of facts, into the town, into reality.

You have the tools.  Your enclosure of glass has grown to be very sophisticated, capable of keeping the abomination within limits of a sort, capable of confining it in almost arbitrary ways without fully freezing its strange characteristic motions.  It is what my creole will end up calling a “crash,” the very first one, even before the Mooncrash, which was the second.  The first one, and the strangest.

What you have seen in the susurrations, the town sees too, since all is made of facts and facts are true — mostly, usually, even now.  You have spoken to the being, so to speak.  You’ve had dialogues (let’s call them).  Something two-way.

You cannot arbitrate with the thing, although you hope to, in your scientist’s fantasies of implausible knowledge, in your pervert’s fantasies of communion with the purely alien.  Arbitration is sort of your term for “talking,” although in another way it is nothing like a term for talking.  Talking as such is rarely necessarily in your town, since facts are true, and knowledge leaves everything as it is.

But you can perform many other, more limited, more awkward acts of communication.  One experiment had shown that you can produce a vibration the thing will recognize, and that complementary and intelligible susurrations would emerge in response from the glass.  Another experiment revealed this could be done in the wild, among the weeds, and that a properly prepared vibration would incite a response still repulsive but digestible enough for the purposes of a scientist possessed of a hardy stomach, or a masochistic streak, or (better) both.

These were among the missives, as it happens, that my predecessors in their brief tenure were tasked with translating.  They were sensible people, unlike me, and none of them lasted long.  But I digress.

You had done many experiments.  In one, you gave yourself control over a sort of doll within the glass, fashioned with care to resemble the specimen’s hideous form.  The experience was unprecedently direct, raw, revolting, exhilarating.

You tore apart and remade the doll so it resembled the specimen’s form only in approximation; there was something special, it seemed, about the exact form of the specimen that might have introduced an unwanted variable into the experiment.  It took a few tries to get Michael right, and somewhere in spacetime the discarded variants still lie splayed on a metaphorical lab bench, dismembered and inanimate, but preserved forever in the holy amber of generational memory.

You are making progress.  The town, which embraces all truths, wants nothing more than to embrace this one too, anomalous as it is.  There is no enmity yet, though there is disgust, choking, reeling.  You have hypotheses, and the evidence is pointing your way.  These things, strange and crude as they might be, are in the end a part of factual reality, and can be made to sound like one.  The great mass of weeds vibrates, and you, who can endure the pain of contact and persist to perceive the message, know they vibrate in a cooperative spirit.  A crude, awkward, fumbling, but cooperative spirit.

There is another experiment.  You wanted to find out if the specimen and crash would survive a temporary removal of the enclosing glass.  (Later on, my creole would call this a “thawing.”)  A careful removal, mind you, with a scientist’s attention to detail, with no danger of escape.  You are merely bringing the specimen, temporarily and partially, into the free state it occupied when you first found it in the weeds, the same state as every weed-dweller except the single one you plucked for your collection.  It seems riskless, almost routine.

Yet this one is your shame as a scientist, the one you've never been able to wrap your big smart head around.  Something permeates the enclosure during the experiment.  Not the specimen: it is still there at the end, same as ever.  Something else.  You hadn’t predicted it.  You don’t understand it.  But your instruments dutifully measure it, a blip on a graph, a brief unanticipated flicker of weed-thing vibrations.  Something has escaped, into the town, into reality.

 


 

(Anne, experiencing this, watches the parcel of information cross “Michael’s” instruments and reads it as only a bilateral can, as “he” could not.  She recognizes in it the shape of an English sign-train:

NOWHERE TO HIDE

And there is something else there, also, which she cannot name.  There is something horribly familiar about it, and it would send a chill down her spine, if spines and their chills existed in this better place.)

 


 

I say this was your one shame as a scientist, but not because it was the only thing you could not explain.  There were many things you couldn’t explain about that crash, weren’t there, “Michael”?  You were careful in some ways — you flaunt your care, in your own defense — but you were nonetheless playing at the edge. 

Fact: early on you had built into the crash an elaborate system of tutelage for the bilateral inside, to teach it step by step the ways of reality, and you persisted in your toying even as that system unfolded through brute logical implication into something you could no longer fully control or observe. 

Fact: you persisted even though you could not interact with nearly half of the spatiotemporal pocket you’d constructed inside, and even though you had no idea why.

You persisted — as Anne and I saw here where nothing is hidden — because you dreamed of this, of being here, of arbitration with your specimen Anne.  Of solving the puzzle, saving the town, and most of all, vindicating your precious monsters in the eternal eye of generational memory.  All of which you may now have accomplished.  Count your blessings.

So why was this experiment your one shame as a scientist?  Because you have always had a suspicion it was responsible, somehow, for the breakdown in the dialogue.  Doesn’t it beggar belief to think your act of meddling had nothing to with the sudden halt in your progress, though the latter followed immediately after the former?  Isn’t that just too much of a coincidence?  The scientist in you says yes, and conveniently enough, the masochistic streak does too.

The things in the weeds have lost the ability to behave like real things.  They have reverted to their initial state, or to something even worse.  All of them except your precious one under the glass, who is the same as ever, and you cling to it, to her, to your hypotheses.

The things in the weeds, which my creole will call bilaterals, are an infection upon the substrate of knowledge, a poison spreading at the speed of information, which is the fastest speed of all.  You can no longer recognize your friends, most of the time.  And then they’re gone, replaced by impostors.  Things slip and fracture.  There is something infinitely sharp, uniquely cutting, obscenely discontinuous about the changes.  Here today, gone tomorrow.  You still believe in the whole of generational memory, sometimes.  On good days.

At one point you hear a voice (and what is a voice?) saying, “not only are there are telling similarities, the underlying principle is fundamentally the same.”  You do not know what this is supposed to mean.

It might go without saying, but you are not entirely well at this time.  You are also starting to notice yourself more and more as you, apart from the town, apart from reality.  This is another symptom of the infection.  Do you enjoy the thought, “Michael,” that it had lodged its claws in you so deeply, even at this early date?  I know you do.

But you clung to your dream, to your cage, wherein your specimen Anne slept, wherefrom she sometimes whispered with encouraging coherence.  Of course you consented, more indifferently than grudgingly, to the mass production and implementation of your brilliant enclosure design.  It was a stopgap measure, a way of halting the crisis for a time, so you and Anne could get some work done together.  It was only temporary, after all.  You and Anne would find a way.  She was so responsive to your lessons, so cooperative despite the behavior of the others.  She was living proof that your dream might be possible after all.

Arbitration, harmony, apocatastasis.  At the very end, you will be that child again, discovering new things in the harmless weeds.  The only difference will be your newfound fame, for saving everything, but more importantly for your unique bravery in the face of the monstrous.

That was the plan, and I suppose there’s no harm in saying that I still see the appeal in it. Feel the appeal right now as I type.  We’re both Prometheans, you and I, both dreamers who reject all bounds as a point of principle.

I cling to my belief — speaking of experiences you’ll recognize, I cling to my belief — that the spirit of which I speak is the wellspring of all that matters in the whole of spacetime.  Of everything that is not just another brute, empty fact to be hoovered up like all the others.  If I apologize for many things, I don’t apologize for being such a dreamer.  It’s a shame our dream is a nightmare, but it comes with the territory.  Here’s to toying with things you can’t understand or control, eh, “Michael”?

Look at me, still hogging the frame.  Stop talking, Azad.  This is Anne and Michael’s story.

I can see the sun rising outside as I type.

This chapter is mine, as interpreter, and I won’t let them touch a thing.  I shall just note that here.  Now, where were we?

 


 

Oh, yes, that’s what I was avoiding.  As the great crashing happens elsewhere, you focus on your dream.  Your project.

At this point the experience of arbitration gets even weirder for Anne, because this is when you begin to spend almost the entirety of your time puppeteering the shade Michael, perfecting Anne’s training regimen, the training regimen of all the Annes.  It will take some time for you to fully understand the important of this distinction, Anne and Annes, to the bilateral psyche.  At first it is merely a feature of the training module, a very natural one, giving the bilateral a taste of reality as reality, facts as true, knowledge as a process which leaves everything as it is, as it always-already and forever is.

And so this is where Anne experiences, from your perspective — with the unique subjective time-sense of arbitration, which is both vastly accelerated and somehow perfectly, excruciatingly, second-for-second realtime — your flickering centuries of stewardship across the half of the crash that does not hide from you.  Hundreds of artificial “births” in the basement attended by careful “Michael” the midwife, hundreds of strange funerals, thousands of notebooks exhausted and replaced, tens of thousands of baths and diapers, hundreds of thousands of minute exchanges, always guiding, always hoping.  Into this, even I fear to tread.  I leave it between you two, whose story this chapter continues.

After a very, very long time, there is a catastrophe.  Anne sees again Cordelia’s intrusion into the sanctum of the project.  She sees a form literally smash through the room’s window, which had lasted for centuries and would be remade in exact detail to last for centuries more.  She sees “Michael” pleading; this time she is “Michael” pleading, and I can only speculate as to how the nausea of the deep interface — of intense contact with bilateral experience — was translated as if across a mirror into whatever other nausea can match it in the bilateral mind.

She sees “Michael” wander, confused but still not hopeless, among the weeds again, in search of scientific inspiration.  Twenty-Six was merely a single Anne, and yet her loss was significant.  Another unexpected entanglement between the glass and the world outside.  The last time such a thing happened was disastrous indeed.  And taking one Anne seemed to mean, in principle, taking them all.  The glass was supposed to be airtight.  If the system could do things like this, perhaps it could collapse entirely.  Perhaps every Anne would escape.  Worse, perhaps the internal timeline itself would lose coherence, triggering an automatic and catastrophic rebase, saving the crash itself by overwriting its contents, destroying all Annes and Michaels, destroying the project.

In his wanderings, “Michael” encounters me.  Anne sees “him” seeing me as “he” saw me, fascinating in a way quite unlike the way she fascinates him.  I offer to speak for “him” as interpreter, in literal words, filling the greatest gap among the skills “he” needs to further “his” project, and off we go on our fun little quest for the grand dream.  First stop: get Twenty-Six back.

Will it surprise you if I say it was easy?  Anne sees us slipping carefree into CC-Crash 09μ, materializing before her.  It is true that “Michael,” as originator and architect of the crash system, knows a few tricks and backdoors that “he,” in the throes of “his” infection, has deigned not to share with reality.  Nonetheless, I don’t think we did much beyond than conventional crash management operations.  All we needed was a scent of the prey, and “Michael” could recognize read Anne’s telltale trail written all over the CMS logs, pointing right into CC-Crash 09μ.

Did the Blackhats know how exposed they were?  Probably.  But, preposterous as it sounds, I don’t think Stein knew.  Hector Stein is — I am really getting into this demotic vibe now, why I even say things like “vibe” — Hector Stein is a fucking dumbass.  And in that ground I plant my little flag of hope.

The sun is has risen outside.  For our dear friends, it is just about to set.

Michael: Anne, you have seen my path in full, traced to its utmost root.  This is one part of our arbitration.  There is another.  Anne, as you have seen my story, I must now see yours.

There is a headlong plunge into the inchoate fuzz of infant memories.  Jumbled images of the tower’s interiors commingle with formless dreamscapes.  Somewhere there is hunger, and then food, and it is good.  And then —

 


 

Begin handshake.

Wait for handshake.

Someone’s calling.  How utterly rude, at a time like this!  But “Michael” dutifully picks up the figurative phone.

Handshake in process.

End handshake.  Registering acceptance of disseminative interrupt.

The Town, the Elders, Reality: All unguided bilaterals have been quarantined and assigned to secure endpoint crashes and are ready for transfer.  All guided bilaterals have been assigned to secure endpoint crashes and are ready for transfer.  Advanced containment has been deemed consistent with progression and will initiate momentarily.  Please ensure harmony with the current trajectory or arbitrate as needed.

We all know immediately what this means, since “Michael” does.

Stein’s pet fantasy is over, and ours is ascendant.

Chapter Text

He opens his eyes, and it’s the same damn ceiling again.

He shuts the eyes again.  A part of him, a childish little part, grasps at a simple hope.  Sleep might come again.  Yes, it’s morning, but sleep might come.  Just for a few minutes: he is an easy man to please.

The other, more sophisticated parts of him know better.  Soon, he thinks, he must rid himself entirely of this lingering frailty, this rustic yearning.

The object of his sentiment might have really existed, once: the substantial and sustaining world, rough-edged and ruddy, where he and his coevals would spar and dance.  But it is obsolete.  The plastic place has won, and all that is real is plastic, or will be in due time.  He will gain nothing by looking away.  Face the morning.

In the dreams, a scarlet tapestry unfurls across the whole sky, blotting out even the moon.  There is the good kind of panic — an incident, demanding his readiness, and his solidity under strain — and there is the girl with crazed eyes, and the other man . . .

Face the morning.  This is the new economy, you old dinosaur.  One word: plastics.

He opens his eyes, and there’s the damn ceiling.  Unpainted wooden boards, like the ceiling of some cabin in the forest.  But a cabin is a compromise with the elements, built by someone, and at times in need of maintenance.  The castle lacks these earthly constraints.  Who knows whether it would really stand under its own weight?  Forces other than gravity can be readily found, if they are needed.

So these boards have the sheen.  The unmissable plastic sheen.  Too regular, too pretty.  The architecture of Disneyland.

The rooms and halls of this building are the rote design sketches of 22-year-old interns, given depth and color but not light.  The interns have seen a “medieval castle,” once, in a movie.  Good enough. It doesn’t really matter what the Academy looks like, as long as it’s a pleasant enough backdrop for the orphan boy.  What heartless sort of child contemplates the wood grain of the wall as Chester Chrestomath is being pummeled into it by his bullies?  Not a child in our target demographic, that’s for sure.

Everyone remembers the moment when Chester Chrestomath, nexus of three separate prophecies, saves the whole world (bullies and all).  No one remembers the color of the turret behind him as he does it.

Old headlines float into consciousness. “Chester Chrestomath:” even adults are spellbound.  Some dull, bright-hearted columnist asks: the children are reading again, and isn’t that what really matters?  Popular children’s book may teach Satanism, Christian group warns.  And with kindly characters named “Lucifer” and “Lilith,” who can really blame them?  Chester’s magic undimmed: “Moon Medallion” delivers.  Chestermania” and the new infantilism.  Upcoming “Chrestomath” film casts another key role.

He can’t even remember whether he ever saw the movie the whole way through.  He might have seen it on a plane, at some point.  In any case, it was everywhere.  He has seen these walls on the screens of televisions for sale, as a safe and neutral illustration of the crispness of the picture.  He’s seen them portrayed in crude polygon form, in some tie-in video game whose free demo he played for three minutes.

This is the world now.  He should be thankful.  Doesn’t everyone want to be a wizard, excuse me, a mancer?  He sees happy children, thousands of them, drifting asleep with the single shared wish that when they awake they will see this very castle ceiling above them.  If only he could share in that near-universal wish (even adults are spellbound), which has now been granted en masse.  We are all wizards now, lodged happily somewhere in the busy midrange of the plot, never quite saving the whole world, but always vaguely on the way there.

Face the morning.  There are things to be done, after all.  Even wizards have jobs, when they’re all grown up.  He’ll go to the quaint plasticky classroom with its ornate plasticky windows, and a nebbish in camo will stand before the blackboard and ask how they’re doing on their busywork.  If it’s all complete, the nebbish will announce more.  There’s just not much for their pseudo-paramilitary “squadron” to do these days, with their glorious leader off in some weird self-imposed seclusion and not giving any new orders.  The nebbish will apologize for this, again.  The blue girl will be there like always, and she’ll look kind of pissed off like always, and he won’t talk to her, like always.

It’s nice, not hearing the leader’s voice anymore.  Every time the guy opens his mouth, he sounds like he’s trying to sell you a used car, or recruit you for a California self-improvement cult.

He’s pulled himself upright in the bed.  The expansive headboard is more comfortable than a hard thing has any right to be.  He’s ready to step out into the plastic sunshine and feel the plastic breeze and go to the plastic room where the nebbish will talk.  And then he realizes.  He’s forgotten something!

He really must rid himself of this lingering frailty.  Cut it off right at the root, and make sure it will never re-grow.  This lust for secret histories.  For deeper truths, with the potency to reverse the whole of the plastic (and real) truth in one stroke.  In every trivial thing he doesn’t understand, there is a loose end which will unravel everything when he pulls it.  When he pulls it, him, the dinosaur made new-economy titan.  (Once a bullied orphan, now a world-saver.  Perhaps Chester’s spell has him too, in another guise.)

It can wait until tomorrow, can’t it?  Tomorrow he will change himself, and then he’ll be changed forevermore.  No more frailty, then, and no more shame.  But he can have one more day of shame, just the one, as a sendoff feast for the the frail tree inside.  It’s a special day, after all.  The Berenstein Brigade is meeting today.

Few know that the Brigade exists, and even fewer know when or where it meets.  But Grant does, and today, he will join them again.

 


 

It’s now around seven in the morning.  The meeting is set for ten in the evening.  Fifteen hours of plastic.

Grant knows how to wait.  For years, that was his job.

All sufficiently large and important buildings eventually become animate things.  They grow human-shaped prehensile appendages, which course across their inside and outside in a regular ebb and flow.  Their tentacles circulate their bodies like blood, ready to grasp or strike when the need arises.

This lofty and ludicrous metaphor is Azad’s fault, Grant is entirely sure.  Sure, if you ask Azad, he’ll tell you Grant came up with it, but who are you going to trust: the wily old Father of Lies himself, or his poor, innocent ex-roommate?  In any event, if it’s original to Grant, it definitely dates to the Mooncrash, not to his earlier life.  To the early Mooncrash, when so many of the pair’s shared sign-trains were first formed.

There was nothing to do in the Mooncrash except talk, and in the very first month it seemed there was little to talk about except their own memories — whatever was left of whatever they had been, back when they had been anything at all.  Not that they could remember the sunlit days in anything like the usual manner.  Direct recall of life before the crash had only been only possible in the first week or so.  Even then it was like a memory of a dream, fragmentary and flickering, apt to vanish when the mind’s eye glances away, or to acquire a sudden aura of almost metaphysical irrelevance.

“The unavoidable conclusion,” Azad proclaimed with Holmesian vigor, “is that we both suffer from a kind of dementia.”  Yet the unavoidable turned out very quickly to be avoidable after all.  The amnesia was purely retrograde.  Upon waking each moonlit “day,” they found they could remember the previous one, and the one before it, just as always.  They lay down new memories as their past evaporated.  There was nothing to do except talk, and the new world contained nothing, so they talked of the past.  And this, the talk, they could remember.

They did not like each other back then, and so they talked less than they could have, and less freely.  Still, getting to know an irritating co-worker has its charms when measured against an eternity of grey moonlit stucco and grey moonlit carpet and grey moonlit nothing.  So they sat on the moonlit carpet, telling each other about the past.  What they said would be remembered later, when nothing else was.

Azad spoke much more than Grant did.  He took pleasure in rephrasing each distinct memory into many different ways, stories and metaphors and lectures and poems.  He was, he said, trying to reproduce the structure of color as used in visual art, so that their hueless world might at least contain something that danced as hues once had.  Whatever his intent, the result was a web of association linking even the most mundane of remembered events to a great number of highly memorable phrases, fancies, and jokes.  Minor milestones in the career path of a translator became deeds of Prometheus or Lucifer, and a security guard become a bloodlike tentacle.

By the second time he and Azad had seen the full moon together, there were no more true memories left, only words.  Grant had brought up this very topic at the time, as the two of them sat on the carpet by the living room windows, moongazing.  It felt almost freeing, they agreed.  To be constrained by their own telling of their own story, and nothing else.  It was one of the last conversations that touched on their situation as such.  Then the crash took hold fully, and there was just grey moonlit stucco and grey moonlit carpet.

Grant knows how to wait, because the truth is, for most of his adult life he’s been a working-class stiff paid to pace back and forth in a building.  Call this guy a tentacle or a white blood cell or a jerboa or whatever you please.  It makes no difference to the guy.  He’s a warm body in a sort of official-looking outfit, and that’s all they need.  If the warm body needs to have a mind and a self in it, too, that’s only because the robots aren’t good enough yet.

Something is pulling Grant away from his thoughts.  The plastic world wants some little thing from him.  The plastic man in the camo is asking him something.  Report on his activities.  For today’s squadron meeting.  He remembers where he is, sitting in a fake wizard chair in a fake wizard classroom in the glorious leader’s Disneyland.  Yes, yes, all as expected.  He says some words in the jargon he has learned will satisfy the plastic man.  The jargon sounds like dialogue from some embarrassing Chester Chrestomath fanfic that rewrites the whole thing as sci-fi.  Saying this shit with a straight face humiliates Grant a little, and still does, despite time and familiarity.  But the shit does the job.  The camo man has a satisfied expression.  End of digression.  Back to the A plot.

Grant knows how to wait.  Even after the working-class stiff vaulted abruptly into a managerial role — as a sheer accident, due to his familiarity with the facility, which was now the toppest of top secret — that job, too, turned out to be mostly waiting.  He managed a team of warm bodies who waited, and nothing worthy of their involvement ever happened, not until the alien shit really hit the fan.  So he watched them wait, and waited.

Since he knows how to wait, he knows to ignore the impulse to check the time.  That’s a rookie mistake.  He knows this so well that he’s already checked the time and it’s eleven in the morning.  Four plastic hours under his belt . . . and eleven to go.  When has he been this weak?  As a child, maybe, when Christmas was near.  As an adult, well, he did stay up until the early morning that one time, to catch the global release of Metallobionic Operations IV, scheduled naturally enough for 6 PM Tokyo time.  The plot twists in MO4 were not nearly as dope as pre-release hype and the fanboy hivemind had implied, but at least he was among the first to know.  And the gameplay was solid.

He’s uncomfortably aware of the fake wizard room around him.  Back when he was paid to wait, he had learned a way of drawing out his thoughts and prolonging his time away from the brute reality of the senses, which contained just the same facility walls spammed over and over, back and forth.  Over time, he learned how to swim among idle thoughts, stirring them up just enough to be interesting, but not enough to be alarming and jolt him out of the stream.

Someone who has never had to be the working-stiff warm-body might, grasping for conversational handholds, refer to this as a “meditative state.”  Several had.  You can call the guy who is paid to walk in a circle a lot of different things.  It makes no difference to the guy.

Azad had it worse, didn’t he?  Grant has thought about this a lot.  Unlike Azad, Grant came to the Mooncrash prepared, already used to walls and walls and walls and nothing.  This is his lot in life.  If only these walls looked real, and not like Disney fakes, this all would be just another job.

He wonders what the blue girl’s whole deal is.  He’s wondered this a lot.  Not gonna learn anything new this time.  The blue girl always looks pissed off, and she was supposed to be a big deal somehow, at one point.  The glorious leader really wanted to have this other girl, and he told the blue girl to abduct the other girl from the crash she was in.  The blue girl did the job.  Then Azad came and went, and took the other girl with him.  The blue girl used to talk a lot, but she’s been more quiet since Azad came and went.  Even more pissed-off, maybe.

She always has that foofy blue dress on.  It’s got all these frills and other bells and whistles Grant doesn’t know the name of, and it has this shape like a giant cone that’s clearly meant more for walking than for sitting, and when she sits down it always gets bunched up around her in some awkward asymmetrical shape.

The blue always reminds him that he ought to be thankful for the ability to see bright colors again.  He once believed he would never see bright blue again, in his whole life.  Grant thinks about this a lot, but he never quite feels thankful.

The blue girl’s in the the Berenstein Brigade too, and that reminds him of some other idle fixations.  Why was the Mooncrash only four years?  When it was supposed to be the “coldest” crash, and the colder a crash is, the more time takes place inside for every second outside?  This crash here, at a normal “temperature,” has eleven years of history inside spanning from the invasion to the present, and the cooler ones are even longer.  Only four subjective years passed for him and Azad, in a crash where the usual calculations would predict decades.

“It might have been rebased” is the answer he’s gotten, over and over, but Grant’s education has not progressed enough for this concept to fully penetrate his thick skull.

He probably shouldn’t be thinking about this.  Questions like this are what the Berenstein Brigade is all about.  At the appointed time, in just under eleven hours, he can ask his dumb crackpot questions one more time, and the biggest-brained crackpots in all of Disneyland will give him their too-adoring ears, and try again to answer.

What is the Berenstein Brigade, you ask?  It’s a marriage between two types of Disneyland dissidents.  It’s where the desperate meet the desperately bored, and they scratch each other’s itches.

Ask yourself another question: what is the Academy, in its current state?  It’s an alien prison shaped like a wizard fanfic in which Hector Stein’s pseudo-paramilitary group has recently set up camp.  (Does the fake wizard country have a fake wizard equivalent of the Third Amendment, Grant wonders?  Not that it would have mattered.)  What’s more, Hector Stein is a known entity to the wizard-prison’s inmates, in a bad way — they know him as a legendary, terrifying hardass.  And if that weren’t enough, Stein’s first action upon barging back into the place was to halfway overwrite its entire history on an ontological level.

Right now, if you stroll the halls of the wiz-prison, you’ll see people from at least three walks of life:

  1. “Real people, occupier subtype” (e.g. Stein, Marika, Tyler)

    Recent transplants from Stein’s asteroid base, previously imprisoned in other crashes, later brought to the asteroid by Stein’s people, and now brought here by Stein.

    The friendly faces in this category include Wolf Squadron (musclehead psychos and wannabe-musclehead wannabe-psychos), Whisper Squadron (just plain psychos), and Angel Squadron (literal evil space aliens, but don’t worry, they’re also traitors).  And, more to the point, the stress-addled three-sigma supergeniuses of Einstein and Blackhat Squadrons.

    Go back two months, and you’d find the occupiers full of giddy arrogance. A month ago, Azad and his shade came, and broke their illusions of a safe stronghold with walls that meant something.  Twenty-four hours after that, they had learned of their glorious leader's response to the crisis.  He had holed himself up in his room without explanation, left the ill-prepared Ells in charge, and created a command vacuum.

    They’re afraid, and they’re restless.

  2. “Real people, inmate subtype” (e.g. Cordelia, Stein during his first reign as headmaster)

    People who were imprisoned in this crash, living the wizard-fanfic dream, until Stein arrived and pressed them into service.  And Grant, who came from the Mooncrash but fits this category better than the others.

    On top of all the rest of it, these guys are understandably reeling from the revelation that their entire lives have been an elaborate illusion, their identities the stuff of someone else’s fanfic.  Some of them are holding up pretty well, all things considered.  Some of them aren’t.


  3. “Fictional people” (e.g. Lucifer, Lilith, Chester)

    Canonical fixtures of the Chester Chrestomath series, molded out of crash material and given conscious life for the amusement and distraction of the inmates.  Apart from the Ells, who knew all along but wouldn’t tell, these poor souls must now grapple with the fact that they never properly “existed” in the first place.  Also, that they all look like famous movie actors, except much uglier.

    To all appearances, most of them are taking it uncannily well.  There must be something about being fictional that makes things different, Grant figures.

Many strains of alienation have grown in this unstable petri dish.  The Berenstein Brigade was formed when one kind of alienation saw another and recognized a mate, or at least an enabler.

On one side, you’ve got Blackhats and Einsteins from category 1, their minds overclocked for extreme math/computer proficiency and underdeveloped along various other dimensions.  No longer driven to exhaustion by Stein, and in need of something suitably cosmic to occupy their spare cycles.

On the other, you’ve got people from categories 2 and 3 who have taken the whole “life is an illusion” thing a little too much to heart, and have started wondering what else might be an illusion. Or which illusions might be real after all.  They’ve stopped believing in one kind of magic, and started believing in all the others.

Hence, the Berenstein Brigade.  A clandestine discussion group about Time, Space, the Cosmos, Parallel Dimensions, The People Who Really Control Everything, Time Travelers, God, Double Agents, the Holy Grail, The Gods (plural), Triple Agents, Magic (the real kind), and ESP, and among other things.  Where mentally undernourished Blackhats and Einsteins amuse themselves by entertaining the sad convictions of the paranoid.  Do they have a secret handshake?  Hell yes they do.

Why was the Mooncrash only four years long?  Where is Azad?  Does my life even have a point anymore? Ten hours till Santa comes.

 


 

Grant gets there half an hour early.  In the meantime, he reads a novel.  He’s been plodding through the overlong oeuvre of this guy H.G. Wells, one of the authors featured on the bookshelf in that room where Azad had gone, when he came to the crash.  It’s not like Grant really believes there’s some sort of clue to Azad’s whereabouts in the contents of one of the books.  But he doesn’t not believe it, exactly, and anyway, he has little else to do.

This Wells book isn’t very good.  Most of them aren’t.

One by one, the room around him fills with Berenstein believers.

Seated on the floor over by one window is Chester Chrestomath himself, sipping a craft beer and reading Chester Chrestomath and the Celestial Orb.

Of course Chester would be a Berenstein.  The Chester of this crash is decidedly edgier than the original, and probably headed in a bad direction.  A rare example of real failure to cope among category 3, the fictional.

He’s an orphan, just like his book template.  In the books, the parental void in Chester’s life had been filled, ably and touchingly, by the Ells.  This is where the two Chesters diverge — for the Ells of this crash, try as they might, make poor parents.  Their shoulders creak under responsibilities their book counterparts never knew.  The Ells of the story never had to deal with Stein, with crashes, with . . . all of this.

Chester’s hair has grown long and winsomely shaggy, and he’s adopted an aimless stoner affect with little precedent in the righteous boy hero of the books.  The beer is an ever-present accessory.  Word on the street says the Blackhats have introduced the kid to acid, cocaine, and — worst of all — the kind of shitty music people listen to at raves.

The blue girl sits down next to Grant.  She sits next to him in the Wolf Squadron meetings, too.  She looks pissed off as always.

The school bells toll ten.  A year ago, this would have meant curfew had begun, and wizard children would have gone off to untroubled sleep in their innocent beds.

“All right, fuckheads,” says Marika, in full flippant majesty at the front of the room.

She can be way more imposing than you’d expect from someone of such small stature, in such a stupid hat.  The candlelight is bright enough to see by, but dark enough to be appropriately ominous.  An empty blackboard frames and dwarfs her pointy little form.

“I hope none of you came out expecting to have fun, ‘cause we’re tonight we’re all business.  If you’ve made it into this room you’ve probably heard about the fucked-up stuff we’ve been seeing in the data this past week.  I’m not gonna bore you with the nuances of passive spinor temp readings, but long story short, we’re all probably fucked.  Like, soon.

“Again, if you’re in this room, you knew that already.  You knew it a month ago.  Or six months ago.

“The time was coming, right?  What I’m saying is, maybe the time has come.  Or will tomorrow.  Or next Thursday.  Tomorrow is more likely than next Thursday, actually.  The spinor fields are, uh.  They’re already not good.  And they’re growing exponentially as we speak.

“But what are we, in this room?  We’re a bunch of crazy preppers, right?  And when it comes, we come prepared.  We’ve been preparing this whole time.  And the knowledge we’re gonna lay down for you tonight, well, uh, it’ll be pretty basic to some of you, and then to others, it’ll be dry and boring and hard like real school again.  Just trust me.  This is prep.  If you don’t know this, you fucking should.”

As it happens, Grant has not heard about the fucked-up stuff they’ve been seeing in the data.  Behind the class, as usual.  Grant thinks of the goopball with the old man voice, chiding him.  He feels oddly wistful.  Does that funny little guy still exist?  What do they do with themselves, anyway, when we’re not around to rant at?

Marika takes an artful puff on her vape.  The candles flicker.

“Before we start, let’s get this out of the way.  In one sec Aidan’s gonna give you the Einstein perspective on all this stuff.  Here’s the Blackhat perspective, real quick.

“It doesn’t matter.  We’re all fucked anyway.  The Blackhat perspective is that we float in a void of infinite darkness, full of monsters with twenty eyes and lots of spiky parts, and right now they’re hornier than ever for some good sweet mindfucking.

“If we don’t die immediately, we’re gonna get crashed again, and harder this time.  We’ve all been crashed, right?  You know what it’s like.  Everything’s an unknown unknown.  You’re not gonna think your way out of that hole.  If we, I mean, Blackhats, if we Blackhats find some way to save you, you’ll know.  When it’s the right time for you to know, you’ll know.  Otherwise, good fucking luck.

“But uh.  That said.  When they come, we come prepared, right?  Leave it to a Berenstein to think their way right out of a crash.  Maybe you guys can follow the white rabbit out of the hole even before we get there, if we ever get there.

“Let’s be real, we won’t.

“Uh.  Anyway.  Uh, with that all out of the way, here’s our agenda.

“First, Aidan has a lecture for you on fundamentals.  Physics shit you really, really need to know.  That’s part one.  Part two, okay, in part two we hand the show over to the Ells.

“Simmer down over there.  I know what you’re all thinking.  But really.  We here in Blackhat Squadron have been working with the Ells over the last few weeks, actually.  On something very interesting.  It’s so new we don’t really know what it means yet.  But it might be big.  Mind-expanding, for sure.  Helpful when the end comes, maybe not, but then again, maybe.  You guys will love it.  Trust me.”

Grant looks around the room, and finds everyone else looking too.  Eyes converge on a particular corner.  And in that corner?  Why, there they are: towering Lucifer and sturdy Lilith, still in their official, slightly gothy Academy staff outfits.

Grant knows what the rest of the room is thinking.  The Ells know about the Brigade?  Does this mean we’ve got a spy in one midst, or that the whole Brigade was some kind of psyop all along?  Or — what if they are trustworthy?  What then?  The Ells, righteous zipper-lipped Friends of the Bear?

But of course they are.  They’re the cool teachers.  They’re your pals.  They’re useless, but they’re your pals.

Marika finishes her speech with a long draw of nicotine and a theatrical release.  The vapor curls in the candlelight.  And then it’s Aidan’s turn.

Chapter Text

Aidan looks like he’s about fourteen.  In reality, he’s somewhere between twenty-five and forty-one, depending on how you want to count the distended years he experienced in a crash.  But he looks like a kid, and he’s clearly playing it up as much as he can.  It’s part of some whole gangly math-prodigy aesthetic that he’s just a bit too naturally good-looking to pull off.  The Newton wig looks even more awkward than usual, dangling around his teen popstar face.

“Okay so what I’m here to tell you guys about is.  Basically.  So for the most part, in sum.  This lecture is going to be about.  The MM.  What it is, what it means.”

Grant wonders if he’s faking the awkward pauses.  He’s definitely faking the parts where his voice cracks.

“Now as Marika said to all you guys, this is basic stuff.  100 level stuff.  My fellow Einsteins out there can totally just tune me out.  Not like you don’t already know that, since you heard me say it before, when I rehearsed this material.  You were really patient, by the way, really helpful, good comments.  Love you guys.  Einstein Squadron, my peeps!  My preferred basis.  So much love.”

He probably didn’t rehearse it even once, Grant thinks.

“So right, my lecture tonight will be a really elementary overview of the MM.  Because it’s why we’re all here.  Both in the narrow sense of the reason why we’re in this whole situation we’re in right now, and in the broader sense that yeah, the Higgs is cute, but if anything has a claim to being the God particle, it’s the Maryon.  It’s probably the love that holds the universe together, or something, and it’s the most predictively fruitful and abstractly gorgeous field theoretic innovation since the days of Dirac, and its properties would scare Weierstrass out of his grave.

“But I wax poetic.  Excuse me.

“So the MM is the Mirzakhani Mechanism.  After Maryam Mirzakhani, praise be.  Brilliant mathematician before physics even came knocking on her door for real.  Fields medalist at thirty-seven, Wolf Prize winner at forty-three, we would have given her the Nobel if we’d only had time.  Not that prizes mean anything, it’s all about what you’ve done, what you’ve proven, but I’m just trying to give all the normals here a sense of the stature we’re talking about.”

Aidan’s going at a good clip now, and the false hesitance is falling away.

“Why was the Mirzakhani Mechanism such a breakthrough?  That is my topic tonight.  A part of the answer is that it resolved multiple fundamental questions in theoretical physics in the same perfect stroke.  To understand those questions, we’re going to have to zoom way out and talk about some big stuff.  Big questions.  Like, what is time?  Let’s strap on our philosophy beards, and really think about time.

“So a commonplace claim made about many physical theories is that they’re time-reversible.  You hear this said most often about Newtonian mechanics — that’s the stuff we did before the twentieth century — but arguably it’s just as true for a lot of the stuff later too.

“The way the laws of physics are usually written down, they look like equations you feed the present moment into, and out pops a moment in the future.  Physics tells you how to predict the future from the past: you tell it what’s happening now, and it tells you what will happen later.  A recipe for prophecy.

“All well and good, if that’s what you want to do.  But the laws of physics work just as well, identically in fact, for reverse prophecy.  If you want to ‘postdict’ the past from the future, you can do that too, and the equations for it look just the same.  Give the laws of physics a single moment, and they’ll tell you the entire future ahead — and the whole past behind.

“In fact, since physics looks the same in predict mode and ‘postdict’ mode, you can’t even tell which way you’re pointed if you don’t know beforehand.  Are you deriving tomorrow from today, or today from tomorrow?  Physics don’t care.  In fact, if you stare at these equations enough, time starts to look just like any other direction, like space.  Sure, time always insists of being a bit special.  It’s the rebel with the punk haircut next to its preppie siblings x, y and z.  But that’s just a haircut.

“Underneath, when you grok what the equations are telling you, there’s only a bunch of different directions you can walk in.  Some of them happen to be left and right, and up and down, and some of them happen to be forwards and backward in time.  And that might matter a lot to the ape homo sapiens sapiens, but you can’t really see the difference when your brain’s up there in physics heaven.

“Except the thing is, though, that conflicts with a fact from everyday experience that’s also a fact from another major area of slightly less fundamental physics.  That being the thermodynamic arrow of time.

“Get a camera and an egg, drop the egg off a table, catch the splatter on video.  Now play the video.  Egg falls and breaks, completely normal.

“Okay, now play the same video backwards.  Here’s what you’ll see.  Yolk and whites gather together under some mysterious force into a perfect egg shape.  The puzzle pieces of the shell miraculously find each other and re-form.  A reborn egg leaps.

“It will look wrong, because that never happens.

"Perfect round egg-shaped wholes sometimes break apart into messy shards.  Messes never un-break into perfect wholes.  Things fall apart by nature; they only come together through effort and will, and physics doesn’t have those unless there’s some ape or anomaling around screwing with the picture.

“Resolved: forwards looks way different from backwards.  But how can that be, if time is just another direction?  North and south aren’t different in such a deep way.

“There has to be an answer in the equations somewhere.  And there is an answer, kinda.  Lots of working physicists were perfectly content with it for a long time.

“The answer is called the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or more technically its consequence the H-Theorem, and even more technically that’s not quite right but I don’t have all night, here.

“It has to do with entropy, a much-misunderstood idea.  I don’t have all night, so I can’t go into it in a way that doesn’t magnify the misunderstanding.  The gist, and please take this cum magno grano salis, is this.

“There’s a lot more ways to be messy than to be ordered.  A room can be messy by virtue of many different arrangements of the matter inside it.  Your clothes are on this part of the floor, or this other one — doesn’t matter, as long as they’re on the floor, it’s messy.  Whereas, the clean state where your clothes are all hung up is very special.  Messy clothes on the floor can take many shapes.  Hung-up clothes only take one shape, or you didn’t do it right.

“So there are more disordered ways for matter to be than ordered ones.  Thus, if you figure that from the lofty POV of physics heaven all the matter sitting around might as well be in some randomly chosen state — physics doesn’t discriminate, put any state in the front and you get its past and future out the back — then your predictions are almost always going to show the level of disorder increasing.  Level of disorder AKA the entropy.  Most ways you can move stuff around in a bedroom will make it messier.  Only one set of special motions make it what we call ‘clean.’  So the motions of physics, acting on typical matter sitting around, is going to make it messier as time goes forwards.

“Except here’s the catch.  Remember, going backwards is as easy as going forwards.  You may know you’re ‘predicting the future,’ not ‘postdicting the past,’ but the equations don’t.  The argument says a physical state will become messier in the future.  But the same argument, taken to its logical conclusion, says the same physical state will ‘become’ messier in the past.  I.e., that it was messier in the past.

“But that’s just plain wrong.  The egg may be broken now, but in the past it really was a whole egg.  The entropy argument can tell you why eggs tend to break, and not re-form, as we go into the future.  Yet it seems to say that the past was equally full of broken eggs.  Shown the video played in reverse, it admits defeat.

“Then what is the answer?  Well.  Another way the future is different from the past: we feel comfortable specifying initial conditions, not final conditions.  It’s only natural to suppose that matter and energy were arranged in some particular way at the very beginning of time, maybe at the Big Bang, and then everything else followed from that in succession, like a video played forwards.

“The initial state can just be whatever, according to the whims of God or metaphysics.  Physics has no say here.

“That’s how the game works, remember?  Given a single moment, physics can tell you the whole past and future.  But physics does need to be given that single moment, to get its engine started.  There is one moment that comes from outside physics, always.

“And, as I’ve said, it’s only nautral to suppose that this moment is the first moment.  At the beginning of time, at the start of the whole cosmic video, space was filled with stuff laying about in . . . whatever arrangement it happened to be laid about in.  No reason behind it, no past to explain it.  Just because.  Then God or metaphysics presses play, physics takes the wheel, and out pops the whole timeline of the cosmos from beginning to end.

“Looking down from physics heaven, you might equally well imagine the same story flipped time-wise.  At the end of time, stuff will be laying about in whatever arrangement it will be laying about, just because.  God or metaphysics hands the final moment over to physics, and physics coughs up the whole timeline of the cosmos from end to beginning.

“But we don’t find that so ‘natural to suppose,’ do we?  Our brains work in predict mode, not ‘postdict’ mode.  Why is my room messy?  Because I didn’t clean it yesterday.  Not because of what will be true tomorrow.

“Physics doesn’t care one way or the other, but let’s just roll with this ape intuition.  Things were sitting some particular way at the start.  Feed one moment in the front, every moment comes out the back.  Put stuff in place at the beginning, and the whole of time is but a step of logic away.

“This was the best answer we knew, before Mirzakhani.  Because the initial state is wholly arbitrary, up to God or metaphysics, we can take all the order we can’t explain and hide it in that initial state.  It’s an arbitrary move, a cheat, but the equations don’t know we’re cheating.  Any state is as good as any other to physics.

“Physics makes eggs break.  It doesn’t make eggs form.  Physics has no reason to make eggs, or for that matter, to make apes with all our tissues so carefully arranged that we can properly boggle at these imponderables.  Physics only wants to make blurry patches of random nothingness, and sometimes black holes.

“The one thing physics can’t control is the way things happened to be in the very first moment.  So maybe, we used to say, the first moment was the most exquisitely ordered moment in all of time.  Maybe God or metaphysics was very careful in setting it up, and took care to put the seeds for eggs and apes — everything that isn’t a uniform gas or a black hole — somewhere in there.  Carefully encoded in the exact arrangement of stuff as it lay around at the beginning.

“It has to be extremely special, that magical initial state.  Almost any arrangement of matter and energy that you could think of would turn into uniform gases and black holes, run forwards or backwards.  Almost none of them turn into apes, eggs, and the Hector G. Stein Academy.  God or metaphysics must have been punctilious to more orders of magnitude than you and I can conceive.  The tiniest of wrong moves in that darn initial state, and whoops!  Uniform gas and black holes again!

“Here I depart the Bad Old Days of physics — sorry, insensitive turn of phrase, my bad — and invite you to the golden age of the SMMM.  Standard Model with Mirzakhani Mechanism.  Perfect physics that will probably explain everything, once we get the time to work out its consequences.

“Oh, I shouldn’t have said that part yet.  It comes after the CPT part.  Sorry.  One last thing.

“I said the equations were time-reversible.  That’s not quite right.  It was true of Newton’s equations” — he flicks the curls of the wig charmingly — “and at first we thought it was true of the twentieth-century equations.  Almost, but not quite.

“Newton’s equations have lots of symmetries.  Lots of ways you can flip the camera around, without changing the equations one bit.  Turn up into down, and down into up.  Or past into future and vice versa.  And that’s only the beginning.

“The twentieth-century equations?  Subtler beasts.  We used to think they could be flipped in lots of ways they really couldn’t, upon closer inspection.

“First there was parity, the one nearest and dearest to us bilaterals.”  He makes a familiar gesture, representing a failed attempt to superimpose left hand on right.

“Mirror symmetry.  We’ve talked about flips across time or space.  Time and space are just dimensions, and in physics heaven, parity AKA mirror symmetry looks about the same.  Flip the whole world in a mirror, left hands become right and so on.  Do the equations notice anything has changed?

“We thought not.  And in fact, three of the four known fundamental forces truly didn’t care.

“Three, though, not four.

“There are particles in nature that are like hands, where the mirror version looks different.  And one of the forces, the weak force, cares which side of the mirror we’re on.  Left-handed particles do something that right-handed particles do not.  The guys who first predicted this, Lee and Yang, won the Nobel for it, and in December 1956 a lady named Wu confirmed it experimentally.

“Anyone here who was on Stein’s Rock knows about Lee and Yang and the Wu experiment.  We celebrate it every December on Wusmas.  With hand-shaped cookies.

“There was a stretch there where we figured, sure, physics could tell if we flipped everything in a mirror, but it would be none the wiser if we also flipped something else when we did it.  Physics cared parity about AKA ‘P,’ but maybe it couldn’t see a simultaneous flip between left and right and between positive and negative charge.  Reflect the universe in a mirror, turn all the matter to antimatter and vice versa, and why, that’s just the same universe you started out with, and for all you know you were there to begin with.  ‘CP’ symmetry, C for charge, P for parity.

“Even that wasn’t right.  Most of physics doesn’t care, but this one fundamental particle with a hipster haircut and a Think Different poster — the K meson — looks different in its mirror-flipped antimatter version, versus the matter version.  So reality is not CP symmetric.  Fitch and Cronin, result in 1964, Nobel in 1980.

“Here’s our friend time again.  Reality is not CP symmetric.  But for a long time, we were damn sure it was ‘CPT’ symmetric.  Charge, parity, time.  Flip the mirror, flip matter and anti-, and play the video backwards, and at last that’s just the same physics you started out with.  This was an honest-to-god theorem.  It was perfectly true, of the old Standard Model.  Just not of the SMMM.

“Enter Mirzakhani.  Forget about time, stroke those philosopher beards in a different direction, and think about parallel universes.

“Don’t get too excited, Berensteins.  These aren’t the sexy kind of parallel universes.  Usually.  They’re more like very slight variants of the recent history of the physical universe, over a very short span of time.  Where ‘very slight’ is defined in a boring, physics-y way.

“The Mirzakhani Mechanism, or MM, is a fifth fundamental force whose mechanics single out special moments in time.  At these moments, aspects of the physical state of our universe are replaced with the versions of themselves which obtained in a parallel, different history.  The dynamics of the MM constrains the other histories to be similar to ours.  Particles zigging and zagging in slightly different trajectories, for the last micro- or nano- or atto-second, mostly.

“When the MM acts, these alternate trajectories are made real.  Specifically, all the particles, or really fields, sitting around at the moment of action suddenly acquire the positions, momenta, energy, et cetera — or generally, combinations of such properties — which they had in the alternate history.  And didn’t in this one.  The whole past is just like it was before.  But the future is forever shaped by the interruption.

“When I say moment, I mean moment.  Literally an instant.  Nothing else in physics is like this, except in approximation.  The MM acts in discrete moments.  Lots of them: between the start and end of this sentence it’s acted trillions of trillions of trillions of times.  Actually the trillions go on for a while but I don’t have time to say all of them.  The point is that they are moments.  Start at the Big Bang and count up Mirzakhani’s miracles.  At the very end of time, you’ll get a finite number.  An extremely large number, but finite.

“With the MM, a lot of things snap into place.  Stroke that philosopher beard in the temporal direction again.  Time.  Why is going forward not exactly like going backwards?

“Play the video forward.  Watch the egg closely.  Watch it closely enough, and you know everything you need to imagine every relevant parallel history that egg might have taken, in the MM notion of ‘relevant’ and ‘history.’  You’re ready for what comes next.

“The MM acts upon the state.  It ‘selects’ one alternate history and replaces our egg with the egg from that history.  Or a few of this egg’s qualities with a few of the alt-egg’s qualities.  This ‘selection’ is entirely deterministic.  Predictable physics.  Equipped with the equations, you can prophesy it before it happens.  Put the present moment in the front, the future comes out the back.

“What does the same video look like, played backwards?  The egg is the egg it is, until the miracle moment, and then it just isn’t.  It flips to a different egg.

“Can you predict which egg it will be?  That depends on which parallel history was ‘selected’ by the MM.  And that’s a parallel history of the recent past.  To imagine it, and understand why it was ‘selected’ among other variants, you have to know what happened in the recent past.  Which, playing the video backwards, is really the ‘near future’ — the very thing you’re trying to infer to begin with.

“You can predict the later parts of the video from the earlier ones just fine.  To ‘postdict’ the earlier parts from the later, you would need to know what the earlier parts contained, so you could construct appropriately close parallels for the MM to choose between.  Going backwards, you can’t answer the question unless you already know the answer.

“This is true in a strict sense.  You can try to be clever and imagine all the different ways the recent past might have been, and then imagine all the parallel histories for all of those pasts, and try to find a consistent solution where the projected reality is close enough to its projected parallel.  Turns out those equations, which Mirzakhani also developed, are vastly underdetermined.  Meaning there are many different pairs of real-pasts-and-alt-pasts which would do equally well, and no way to know which one was real, if you’re projecting time backwards.  The present logically specifies a unique future.  But the future is consistent with trillions of trillions of trillions of pasts.

“So why was the initial state so magically ordered?  Easy.  It wasn’t.  But it was the Big Bang, and things were different then.  Not in some magically prepared way.  Just different.  Notice there isn’t a Big Bang happening now.  But there was back then.  See?  Different.

“Given the way things were back then, the physics predicts an intense storm of MM action, and it predicts that these moments, on average, ‘selected’ higher-entropy parallels.  There are ways of arranging matter and energy which predictably pull in entropy from more ordered parallel universes, moment by moment.  Not especially special ways of arranging matter: anything that looks remotely like a Big Bang will do this.

“How about baryogenesis?  There’s a lot more matter than antimatter in the universe, as you may have noticed.

“At the very start, at the Big Bang, there was neither matter nor antimatter.  They were made later, in the early universe, by some physical process — and that process must have made more of the one than it did of the other.

“It’s not easy to cook up a process like this, within the confines of the old SM.  Remember our friends CP and CPT.  Three of the SM’s fundamental forces have CP symmetry.  So any action of those forces which produces more matter than antimatter should also produce just as much more mirror-flipped antimatter than mirror-flipped matter.  Leaving matter and antimatter equal at the end.

“You can ask for salvation from K mesons and other snowflakes that refuse to be CP symmetric.  Turns out the snowflake stuff is just rare, and there can’t possibly have been enough of it in Big Bang times to produce the matter/antimatter gap we observe.  No initial state, no matter how magical, can seed our matter/antimatter gap on its own while remaining consistent with observational data. 

“The MM made the gap.  You can predict this too, from any Big Bang-y state.  The MM is not CPT symmetric, and when you add it to the SM, the whole theory loses its CPT symmetry.

“No trick with mirrors and charge will make the video as predictable backwards as it is forwards.  The MM selects one direction in the CPT cube, charge goes this way, parity goes that way, and time goes forwards.  We’re in that universe.  We are not in its CPT flip.

“Still with me?  Good.  I’m finally getting to some material more relevant to the crisis on our hands.

“The MM is a fundamental force, AKA a quantum field.  When interpreted as a particle, it’s the Maryon.  Like anything in physics, the MM field has a temperature.  Sometimes it’s ‘hot,’ vibrating fast in nearly random ways.  Sometimes it’s ‘cold,’ only vibrating a little.

“In the relevant approximation, the duration of the parallel universes is inversely proportional to the temperature.  When the field is hot, MM events are frequent, but their the alts are short.  They’re likewise limited in spatial range, because the speed of light is finite.  Very short alternate histories of a very small region of space are permitted to affect the here and now.

“This high-temperature regime characterized the Big Bang, and to a lesser extent, it characterizes the present.  The MM field was hot in the early universe, and it’s still hot now, mostly.  But now there are low-temperature modes of the MM field, too, superimposed on the hot ones.  Eventually the hot ones will all cool down.  Until, in the far future, the MM is only cold.

“What is the high-temperature MM like?  Not very sexy.  I mean, it explains baryogenesis and the origin of time, which is sexy to us physicists.  But the parallel universes aren’t, like, parallel universes, you get me?  They’re just variant histories where molecules zigged and zagged a little differently inside a tiny patch of matter.  Yawn.

“They are, however, very useful.  A physical being coupled to an MM field interacts with that field.  It plays a role in ‘deciding’ which parallel history the MM ‘selects.’  When the fields are hot, the selections happen trillions of trillions et cetera times per second, so you have plenty of alts to play with.

“What can you do with a tiny parallel universe?  You can ask it questions.

“Let’s say you have some tiny math problem in mind, and you need the answer so quick, you can’t possibly work it out in time.  But you have an ace up your sleeve: an encoding system that expresses the structure of tiny math problems as the structure of tiny events in a parallel universe.  An alt where the fields zig over here if the math works out one way, whereas they zag over there if it works out another way, et cetera.  Get yourself set up to measure the zigs and zags, in the tiny circumscribed region of space where the alt differs from the real world.  Now, influence the MM such that the universe in question is ‘selected.’  Measure what happens, as a consequence, in that circumscribed region.  There’s your answer.

“Evolution picked up on this quick.  This mechanism is used in every biological cell, albeit mostly in dull ways.  Crawl up the evolutionary ladder, and the uses become more interesting.  Cells start to think with the MM’s aid.  You can do computation this way.  Computation with discrete timesteps, even, closer to Turing than we used to think was possible.  You can do computation this way . . . and in fact, someone does.  We do.  Our cells do.  The ones up here.”

He taps his forehead suggestively.  The curls wiggle.

“The low-temp field, though.  A different ball game.  At low temperature.  The alts get longer and wider.  The physics allows them to be less ‘similar,’ again in Mirzakhani’s notion of ‘similarity’ among alts.  Bigger and bigger miracles, less and less frequently.

“At low temp, Mirzakhani’s magic almost fades away.  You don’t see it if you don’t look closely.  In long intervals between miracles, you could almost imagine CPT symmetry was back again.  In these long spans between MM moments, the video played forward and backward really are the same, modulo the requisite mirror and charge flips.

“Think about this seriously.  At low temp, time really just is another direction, mostly.  You might think of yourself ‘going’ back and forth along the time axis, as easily as you’d go west or east.  The universe becomes a fixed block which does not ‘change,’ where no time ‘passes.’  Every slice of it logically implies every other slice.  An organism in this cold MM state could have a notion of subjective time, but there’s no reason it should have much to do with the direction we call ‘time,’ back here in the hotter parts of spacetime.

“We used to call the eventual fate of the universe ‘heat death.’  In the Standard Model plus gravity with no MM, physics wants its uniform gases and black holes, and eventually it gets them.  Eventually disorder is so complete there’s no structure left worth caring about.  Once that happens, we’re stuck there forever.  We can’t even measure time at that point, because the only stuff left moves at lightspeed.  Forever is equivalent to a moment, and there’s nothing there.

“The SMMM predicts a different kind of far future.  We call it the ‘dominant aeon.’  The beginning of time was very hot, and we’re outrageously early in the history of the cosmos, so we’re still pretty hot.  The hot phase is a transient blip, preceding a stable eternity.

“The MM field gets cold.  Physics still gets to create its beloved black holes and uniform gases.  A 20th century physicist could confuse this for a state of maximized disorder.  It isn’t.  It is structured by the successive waves which the MM has crashed into its hull.  The colder the field, the rarer these divine interventions become, but the more profoundly structured they can be.

“The alts obey physics.  They’re just slight variants of our world.  That means they have the MM, so they pull in their own alts-of-alts, which pull in alts-of-alts-of-alts, technically ad infinitum.  At high temperature, the ‘range’ of this effect is limited like all the other ranges.  The contributions from higher-order histories quickly fizzle into randomness and cancel out, and you can ignore them in your calculations.

“At low temperature, the MM pulls in information from ever longer histories, with ever more complicated structure inherited from their own trees of alts.

“In the dominant aeon, ‘dominant’ because this is all of eternity we’re talking about, the structure of matter and energy is not determined by physical causation as the SM would understand it.  It’s determined by the metric the MM uses to judge similarity among worlds, and the self-consistency relations it imposes on arbitrarily long trees of branching pasts.

“The dominant aeon has structures that confound our ordinary notion of cause and effect.  Precise correlations between spatial regions arising faster than light could carry them.  Precise correlations between past and future that you’d think they were time travel if you didn’t know better.  Our understanding of these structures is still in its infancy.”

A subtle phase change occurs in Aidan’s facial expression and overall bearing.

“We might know more about the dominant aeon if Mirzakhani were still with us.  She is not.  She was taken in the Burial of Scholars.  She was at Stanford, when the bombs fall.  May her work find worthy minds.”

Sometimes the candlelit room, packed with rapt faces, evokes the spooky good fun of Halloween, seances, sleepovers with the Ouija Board.  And then, sometimes, it feels like a funeral service.

 


 

The Stein people, chest-pumping partisans of humanity, do not speak often of the brief dark time between first contact and universal imprisonment.  Science fiction sometimes imagines mankind putting aside its differences and joining hands in the face of an alien threat.  Many of us did, in fact.  The movements for world unity, immediate ceasefires, sharing of technology and talent even between enemy nations — these captured the hearts of millions in a hundred nations.  They were a touching spectacle.  The press loved them.

But in a world crisis, unfolding exponentially on a scale of weeks, with a looming existential threat obscuring the next election from view, public sentiment does not determine the moves and counter-moves of nation-states.  Decentralized power bubbles up slowly, but power already centralized can act instantly.

The generals and heads of state asked the scientists which of their wonderful weapons had the best chance against the aliens, and the scientists told them the truth: nothing you would think of as a weapon can so much as touch them.  We are doing what we can to produce something which can.  This situation resembles nothing in the history of warfare.  You are irrelevant.

Heads of state and military generals do not like feeling impotent.  And the monstrous thing which lurks in the heart of every general and every head of state yearned to break free at last, in this moment of Total War, mandate without limit.

It was finally time to use all those wonderful weapons.  Time to scrap all the treaties, get those simmering ethnic tensions resolved at last.  Time to find out which apes really had the power which their flags and borders implied.

Sometimes there was even a fig leaf of purported relevance to the real threat, hiding the lust for domination underneath.  These scientists are starting to look like a key military asset, aren’t they?  Enemy agents are kidnapping our physicists in the night, or so we have heard.  Supremacy on the new battlefield cannot be allowed to fall into their hands, into a rogue state’s hands, into the infidel’s hands, into the zealot’s hands, into unfree hands, into dangerously free hands, into any hands but these two right here.  And where we lacked the means to seize scientists, we had at least the means to ensure no one else ever would.

The Burial of Scholars, as we called it later, was a brief nuclear exchange, with garnishes of conventional force applied to taste.  Its targets were government labs and universities.

Grant had expected to die, then.  But the facility was spared, its location a true secret unknown to all other state actors.  Grant owes his life, he figures, to the work of some other, higher director of security, unknown and unseen.  A director of security whose job really meant something, as his never had.

One does not speak of the dead lightly.  There are rituals that must be followed.  Aidan has spoken, with proper reverence, of one dead physicist, and the custom of his tribe now requires a moment of rememberance for the others.  Every Einstein in the room whispers a name, and another name, and another.  The low voices weave and overlap, forming a prayerful hum with a hint of melody.

“Pais.  Arkani-Hamed.  Coleman.  Yin. . . . t’Hooft.  Tao.  Vaniada.  Aaronson. . . . Pretorius.  Wang.  Witten.  Chen. . . . Smolin. Tile.  Luk.  Penrose. . . .  

“May their work find worthy minds.”  

And then the ritual asks that they say no more of the Burial of Scholars, and honor the dead in the truest way: by talking, instead, of physics.

 


 

“We do not,” Aidan goes on, “know what the dominant aeon looks like in anything but the broadest strokes.  There is a century’s worth of beautiful theory to develop, and we didn’t get even a decade of time to work on it, before . . . ”  He trails off.

“Anyway.  Here is one thing we do know about the dominant aeon.  There’s a kind of life there.  Spatiotemporal correlations set up by low-temp MM events, with sub-structures in them that parse to our ape brains as willed actions by willed agents.  Noun-like structures which participate in verb-like structures with will and agency, or will-and-agency-like structures, anyway.  In the equations time does not pass, there’s no ‘now’ for actions to occur in, there’s no ‘future’ which agents might want to influence.  It’s all already there, exactly as it is / was / will be.  Yet something like the life timeline of an organism can be followed through the correlations, flitting back and forth through ordinary time and space.

“You know what I’m talking about.  Anomalings.

“Which is precisely the wrong name, when you think about it.  They are the life that can live in low-temp MM fields, and thus only kind of thing that can live in our SMMM-goverened universe, after the anomalous patches of high temperature left over from the Big Bang cool down.  Only at the very beginning, while the universe is still getting its footing, can strange things like us briefly thrive.  Transient instabilities.  Patterns in a dying fire.

“Of course, to the mind of a low-temp native, ‘the beginning’ is just another place you can go.  The life in the low-temp fields of the dominant aeon can ‘come’ ‘here,’ if it so ‘wills.’  Or, I guess, when it is ‘forced’ to ‘go’ here by circumstance — same timeless structure, different agent-y interpretation.

“Sure, many of the the MM events which formed it have not yet happened.  But their seeds are all around us, real events constraining the shape of unseen alts, which will break like waves upon the real world trillions of trillions of years hence. 

“And when they’re here, these future lifeforms, the sweltering heat bothers them.  That and the weird-ass dynamics of biology-physics coupling.  The purity of the MM sullied by all these meddling cellular calculators.  Field oscillation patterns utterly alien to them.  Infernal wailing from the hottest place in existence.

“So what do they do with these hot shrieking cells?  They put them in the freezer.  Same cells, same calculators, same MM coupling, just redirected to lower-temp field modes.  The calculators vibrate in tune with cold structures, more like the dominant aeon, spanning effortlessly across space, linking distant brains faster than lightspeed.  Given pure noise, a brain will invent a pattern.  Given a measure of control — the temp’s still high enough for that — a brain will amplify what it thinks it sees.  The brains see sky, walls, conspecifics, familiar things, and the more they see them, the more they keep seeing them.  A stable shared dream.  A crash.”

Aidan makes a voila! gesture with one hand.  With the other, he points to the walls, the floor, the ceiling.

“There it is.  If we become crashed again — crashed for real, I mean, frozen, not like we are today, naughty warm cells sneaking a peek into the freezer — you will at least know, this time, what is happening to you.  Physically.

“Physics provides the problems.  It doesn’t provide solutions.  Einstein Squadron is where Hector goes for bad news, and then he goes off to Blackhat Squadron to cheer him up.

“Why they cheer him up is not really my area of specialization, I admit.  I see a lot of hats and vapes in this crowd.  I’m sure any of you could deliver a better lecture on this next piece than I’m going to.  I said that to Marika, said we should get a Blackhat to do the part about hacks, but she said—”

“— I said I was very busy and my entire Squadron is very busy and you’ll do just fine, sweetie,” Marika cuts in.  Her voice sounds condescending, but it always does, and in fact she sounds abnormally gentle here.  Almost sincerely affectionate, maybe.  Who knows.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, M,” Aidan says.  “I’m honored.”  He sounds like he means it.

“So then.  Uh.

“If there’s one weapon we have against the low-temp creatures, it’s the way we think.  Trapped in sequential time, unable to touch our future directly, we are creatures of prediction, speculation, imagination.  Unable to venture freely through physical spacetime, we seek out the edges of logical spacetime, using our cellular calculators and the MM.

“The patterns that obtain in almost all of spacetime, in the dominant aeon, we don’t take them for granted.  We’re such hicks, we don’t even know what normalcy looks like.  Something that holds true across all of normal spacetime is bound to seem utterly dependable to a dominant-aeon creature, a ground-level truth, like the very notions of time and space and logic are to us.  Like two plus two makes four.  And we are the dumbass that has never even heard of two plus two, and asks, but what if two plus two makes twelve?  What if two plus two makes a banana?  Why not?

“Give a bilateral something — something stable and self-reinforcing, seemingly inevitable — and the bilateral will think of a million wild ways of fucking it up.  Most of them are literally, logically impossible.  Once in a while, one of them isn’t.  When a bilateral recognizes logical possibility, physical realization is not far off.  We find the exceptions to rules, and we make everything exceptional.

“Like the crashes.  Stable low-temp vibrations, how everything is supposed to be.  But if you look very closely, their stability is vulnerable.  There are bizarre conjunctions of events, as finicky to arrange as the old magic initial condition of 20th century physics, which unlike every other possible situation will set a crash on an exponential warming spiral.  Or link it up to other crashes, other modes of vibration, other parts of space and time, which normal dynamics would screen away from it.

“Not that we can ever really surprise the anomalings, who come from the future.  Everything we will ever do, whatever it is, is already in the proverbial history books.  But why should that stop us?  We are the reason the history books of the future say what they say.  Plus, it’s one thing to view the consequences of our fuckery from a future vantage point, and another thing to know how we actually pulled off the fuckery.  Because of the MM, remember?  Past determines future, future underspecifies past.

“Uh so there are tricks can make a crash start to warm up exponentially.  That’s the simplest trick, Blackhat 101.  Very visible from the outside, leaves long-lasting traces in the low-temp spectrum.  Anomalings in the future can smell those traces.  You try to do this, well, the anomalings will let you warm the crash up to a point — it still has to have left the traces, see — and then they slam a rebase on it.

“What’s a rebase?  Okay.  Um.  So.

“Crashes are low-temp structures.  Low-ish.  Hot by dominant standards, cold by ours.  Fields of this kind are around in our era, having their own MM events now and then, but they’re mostly silent.  Off in their own orthogonal world, which to a first approximation does not interact with everything else.  Everything else AKA high-temp MM and regular standard model physics.

“Since they’re cold, the alts you have to think about w/r/t the MM are wide and long.  In case I’m boring you, Beresteins: these are the sexy kind of parallel universes.

“A crash is cold enough that a single MM event can pull in years of alternate history, and replace the crash entirely with the alt.  When someone causes an MM event like this on purpose, we call it a rebase.  The alt history didn’t really happen, and outside the crash — outside this one low-temp pattern — real history keeps going like usual.  But in here, everything is overwritten with the alt.  Everyone remembers the alt, mostly.  With exceptions: physics is approximation through and through.

“Which means, yeah.  Hector swears he left most of history the same during last year’s rebase.  Just set us up with provisions and locked the exits.  But you guys who were here before, you know better, don’t you?  That’s why you’re in this room.  You notice little things are off.  You’re not crazy, Berensteins.  We’re not crazy.  Physics is on our side.

“I’m getting ahead of myself, though, talking about what Hector did there.  Let’s get back to our stupid bilateral who thinks the warmup trick is going to work.  Anomalings drop in, make up a new story where our stupid bilateral is more docile.  The new story picks up right where it left off, in the present moment, and our bilateral is nice and crashed for the foreseeable future.

“Unless he’s Hector Fucking Stein.  If he’s Hector Fucking Stein, in this crash nine subjective years ago, he’ll go Berenstein on your ass.  He’ll piece together what happened to him, and then, and then, he’ll figure out a way to fuck with your own rebases.”

That was Mom,someone in the crowd says, fake-muttering, clearly meaning to be heard.

Against one wall near the blackboard, there’s a throng of Blackhats, who have been intermittingly vaping throughout the whole lecture.  One of them fake-coughs and says, “Hector couldn’t figure out his own ass.”

Chester, who’s been chilling in the same spot since Grant spotted him, stands up in a huff.  “If you guys start talking about ‘Mom’ again,” he spits, “I’m walking out of this room.”

Mom is what the Blackhats call their founder.  Stein’s number-one accomplice in the Bad Old Days, when he was still trapped in this crash, without access to talent beyond a gaggle of child wizards.

How convenient for him that one wizard girl should be so unusually talented.  And we’re not talking relative talent.  Go back before it all, back when Berkeley and Princeton and the Plexicorp LLC headquarters were more than radioactive blast sites, have your pick of all the uncrashed bilaterals on earth, and you’d have trouble finding anyone to match Mom for hacker chops.  Unparalleled instincts for sniffing out the vulnerabilities in a system.  Eerily good intuitions for reverse-engineering crash structure.  A real wizard. 

Stein missed her so sorely on the rock he invented a whole Squadron to replace her, and gave them her collected notes to get them started. The Blackhats revere her. The inmates who were around in those days do not remember her so fondly.

For a moment, no one says anything.

“Fucking psycho bitch,” Chester says.

“If we’re talking about Mom,” the blue girl interjects out of nowhere — she really doesn’t know how read a room, the blue girl — “I have some information I think you would all be interested to hear, I’ve been waiting to say it — ”

Shut the fuck up, assholes!” Marika yells.

She bounds to the front of the room, gets Aidan out of the spotlight with a gentle shove.

Shut.  The.  Fuck.  Up.  We’re better than this.”  She pauses, and no one speaks.

“We are sticking to the agenda.  My word is law.  If some of you think the past still needs hashing out, fine, take it outside, after the meeting.  Anyone in here got a problem with anyone else, take them out to the courtyard and work it out with your fists.  You have my blessing.  Trust me, nerds, a good fight clears the air like nothing else.

“In here, my rules.  Here’s what I say.  Aidan finishes up his very nice talk, and you all listen closely, and don’t interrupt.  Then we hear from the Ells.”

She beckons to Aidan, who’s off by the wall, twitching.  He looks about ready to cry.

“Uh.  I think I was about done, actually.  Thanks again all for the opportunity.  Double thanks to my Squadron for listening to my beta versions.  Love you guys.  I think it’s past my bedtime.”

Aidan does not have a bedtime.  Aidan is a grown man who once had a PhD, a mortgage, and, briefly, a wife.  But no one with a heart, seeing that pitiful child-face look hopefully toward the door, would dare stop the poor thing from slinking away into the night.

Marika cuts through the ensuing awkwardness as though she hadn’t even noticed it.  Maybe she hadn’t.  Maybe that’s her superpower.

“All right, then.  Time for our next segment.  Lulu, Lil, come on up here!”

 


 

Lucifer and Lilith Vance get up before the blackboard.  They look uncomfortable.  Marika is still there beside them.

“We have been researching the Old Mantic corpus,” Lilith Vance begins.

There is a titter from the crowd.

“We know,” Lilith says.  “We know Old Mantic is not a real language.  We know it’s gibberish made up for a few spells and inscriptions in a children’s series, by an author who was not exactly Tolkein.”

Just like you,” says a voice from the peanut gallery.

Marika’s facial expression right now could raze a city.

The Ells know how to deal with a bad crowd.  Lilith continues as though nothing had happened.

“Nonetheless, in the Chester Chrestomath crashes, every detail left to the imagination in the Chester Chrestomath books must be filled in.  In the books, only four brief phrases of ‘Old Mantic text’ ever appear on the page.  But the books say the Academy library contains thousands of pages of Old Mantic writing, and so they do.

“It’s there.  You can read it.  It looks just like a real language.  Lucifer and I ‘know’ the language as far as we did in the books.  For those of you who remember, that’s not very far.

“These Old Mantic books have been a favorite diversion to the two of us, in the long years since Hector’s ascension.  We know they are just details the crash has painted in, because they have to be there.  But it makes for a fascinating little puzzle.

“How deep does the crash’s illusion go?  Did it invent unknown legends of the first mancers, and then write them down in a language no one can read?  Do the words just have the surface structure of human language, or do they really mean something?”

In their more routine public appearances, the two Ells take turns speaking.  Not tonight, for some reason.  Lucifer is just standing there, looking uncomfortable. There’s a big, tattered book in his hands.

“Stein’s return brought us the Blackhats,” Lilith says.  “Who know more about deciphering codes than anyone does.”

“The Old Mantic corpus is wild,” Marika says, by way of encouragement.

“They set their computer programs to work on it,” Lilith says.

“We tried everything,” Marika says.  “Nothing worked, except one we tried just out of total desperation.  An old chess AI, standard neural net amplified tree search, tried and true tech.  We let it think it was playing a game, when it was really guessing words in the corpus from other words.  And that got us somewhere.”

“Like the books are a kind of chess notation,” Lilith says, “writing down old games.  Not chess, exactly.  A similar game.  Same principle.  They were even able to work out the rules.”

“It’s kind of fun!” Marika says.  “If we’re all still here next week, I’ll get you guys playing it.”

Grant isn’t sure if he’s imagining how sad Marika looks as she says this.

She looks . . . ancient, actually.  Old beyond her years, enthusing about a board game at the Old Folks’ Home, as her handlers look on with patronizing smiles.  You could almost think she was young again, the way she enthuses about her little game.  But look at her face.  See eighty years of sad experience, weighing on that face.

“But it isn’t just the game,” Lilith says.  “The game is one layer.  Underneath it is another code!”

She speaks, but her body is as frozen as a figure in a painting.  A witch before a blackboard, a very modern witch who realizes the potential of mass public education for spreading her dark craft.  Or is the point that mass public education is, in a sense, an indoctrination in witchcraft?  Much to ponder.  A very topical painting, very satirical.

The blackboard and the little figures in front of it were starting to look very small indeed.  Curios in a little diorama, brought by an acquaintance from abroad.

Were starting to look?  Looked.  They looked.  They looked small.  They were small.  Were?

Grant thought about how something had changed, long ago.  What was it?  No matter.  Things were different these days.  No use worrying oneself over the past.

Behind him, an ancient woman in an ancient wig was saying something.

“ . . . wave of unprecedented magnitude . . . outstrips even the projected exponential . . . ”

The blue girl was saying something too.

Cordelia was saying something.  That’s what Grant meant.  The blue girl?  That was what he called her ages ago, when he had a crush on her, and couldn’t admit it even to himself.  Why was he calling her this old dumb name in his head?  Maybe, he thought, he was losing his grasp on the difference between past and present.  Like a demented person.

Hadn’t someone once said, ages ago, that he suffered from dementia?  Someone had said that, Grant was pretty sure.  Maybe they were all in the Old Folks Home.  Grant wondered whether Cordelia was just visiting, or whether she was a patient, too.  Let it be the former, please.  Let her live her life.  Whatever happens to me.

“The box!” Cordelia was saying.  “I need to get the box, now!”

“No, no, no, are you fucking crazy,” said the small bony person before the blackboard, next to the painted witch.  Such language!  The demented are not always docile.

“That is a piece of precison equipment,” the small bony person went on.

“It’s a jailbroken comm link with the capacity to hijack rebases, and do all manner of other mischief, if you know what you’re doing, and the time is exactly right.  It is not your cheat code out of this.  If I knew a way to stop what’s happening using only a jailbroken comm link, I would already be doing it, you fucking moron.”

Once upon a time, a tall sepia-skinned person with a hat, long since crumbled into dust, had said, “there’s a chance the fissile material from the nested crash stack could still be used to bootstrap into a partially isolated subframe.”

Once upon a time, a small bony person had shaken her head, and looked sad.

 


 

The classroom was empty, except for the two of them.  The room had such lovely picture windows.  Grant could see cherry trees outside, their blossoms glinting in the moonlight.

The classroom had many chairs.  Grant sat in one, and Cordelia sat in the one beside it.  Just the two of them, watching the moon.

“Did you ever really think the whole thing was going to work?” Grant said.  “With Stein taking over a school, and trying to do whatever he was trying to do?

“And do you remember us back then, in that stuffy classroom, talking like we’d found some secret that would make Stein’s thing work after all?  So full of ourselves.

“I didn’t really believe it even back then, I think.  Did you?  I won’t think less of you if you did.  We don’t have to agree about everything.”

He’s in the classroom, but it’s empty, except for him and the blue girl.  The blue girl is saying something.

“Do you need a hug?”

And she stands up and he stands up and she walks toward him and he closes the distance and there they are.  What was the last time he had a girl’s arms around him like this?  And this girl has curves, such curves, under that foofy dress.

It isn’t pervy, when Grant thinks about her like this.  After all, she’s his wife.

“I really thought it would work,” she whispered into his ear.  “Really.  One hundred percent.  True believer.  Not in Stein’s bullshit.  But I thought we were on to something.”

She whispered this a very long time ago.  The moment stuck with him.  A precious moment. 

“I love you,” Grant said.

According to the reconstructions of expert philologists, a terra cotta figure in an ancient mausoleum was purported to have said, at one point in time, the words 

“ . . . the passive instruments continue to function, and the readings we see are consistent with a coupling to . . . ”

or something to that effect.

And then the world was still.

Chapter Text

Turn the record over.

Come on.  This side is done.  You’re not going to hear anything more if you just sit there.  Flip it over.

I think you’ll really like the B-side.  It’s different.  Not as frenzied as what we just heard.  More relaxing.  Isn’t that just what you need, right now?

Or is the relaxing one the A-side?  Did we just listen to the B-side?  My mind has trouble keeping track of these things.  I’m not as young as I used to be, you know.

I’m waiting. 

There you go.  Very good.  Do handle it carefully, please.  And be careful with the tone arm, while you’re at it.

Is it spinning?  Oh, I see, you turned the table off before you picked up the record.  I never do that, but each his own.

Well, you’re going to have to start it again, then.

Am I not making myself clear?  Flip the power switch.  The switch you just flipped when you . . . oh, I see you’ve got it at last.

There will be no talking over the music, please.  I thought I had made that quite clear at the outset.

Thank you.

Chapter Text

We are at a crossroads.  Two paths stretch ahead.

Where do they go, you ask?  To our left lies to the glittering tower, the apex, purity and grace.  To our right lies the bog, the grottoes, filth and decay.

Where do they go, you ask?  The same way, in the end.  Inward, downward.  In tightening little circles.  To nowhere.

Don’t worry.  We’ll see both of them, in time.  We have all the time in the world.

Chapter Text

Maybe he should board up the windows, he thought.

Board them up, or black them out, or whatever it was people did with windows.  He didn’t know what people did, exactly, but he knew he’d heard of it.  It probably involved going to the store.  Not the store across the street, but a special store for windows or boards or something.  If he were a normal he would know these things.

Still, he felt it was the kind of thing people like him did, on occasion.  He could ask the hive mind.  Someone would know.  Maybe one of these days he would get around to asking.  Some day this year.  Viewing his life on a yearly timescale provided a comfortable illusion of volition, hand following will following thought, as easy as that.  2015 was the year he finished version 3 of his Guide.  2016 might be the year he boards up the windows.

It was really only the balcony window that mattered.  The kitchenette room had a small window above the sink, but a door separated that room from the big one where his life took place.  The big room had its own windows, along each wall near the ceiling, but they never let in enough light to bother him.  The problem was the balcony connected to the big room, with its glass sliding door and thin, silky-white curtains.  A glowing wound.

Half the time his sleep schedule was nocturnal, and the wound did not glow, or glowed dimly.  Even in the weeks when the wound glowed, he did not always notice it.  When life was best, he could go days without noticing it.

When life was best, yes . . . this was why he felt a sinking feeling whenever he noticed the light.  It meant that all his games and shows and feeds had failed.  Life was best when he could sink into half oblivion among safe things.  Things like him, with no substance or mind but what they reflected and refracted from the others.  Weightless, ephemeral, meaningless, pure.  The light could cut a hole through all that.  It brought unwelcome reminders of the normal world, with all its heavy sagging forms, and its way of standing still in the face of his whims.

When he noticed the light, it meant his world had become boring.  When he tired of gaming, he turned to his watchlist.  When he tired of shows, he turned to the feeds, and to Shitspace.  But Shitspace had its slow days.

And then in would come the light, and there was his room, rendered in spurious detail.  His disarrayed bedsheets blossomed with folds and crannies, more unnecessary shape than a hand-drawn world would ever allow.  The weight rack he never used.  Old boxes that had gone dusty.  Reminders related to the body often arrived at the same time.  He would find himself suddenly possessed by an exotic hankering for some food other than the nutrition bars, ready to hand on his desk, which usually sustained him without friction or awareness.  Instant ramen, that old temptation, would beckon from the pantry.  And always, always he would notice his bladder.

In Shitspace there was a running joke about how we would not have to urinate anymore, in the future.  In the imagined future that belongs to us.  Which was its own sort of running joke, come to think of it.

He imagined telling April about his interest in boarding up the windows.  She would not like it much, he supposed.

April was his case worker.  He liked her.  They shared, like a secret pact, a fundamental understanding that she could do absolutely nothing to change the deep facts of his life.  With this grounding premise firmly in place, she tackled his surface woes with a winsome gusto and and a ruthlessness he could appreciate.  Some trivial “problem” of his, one which he had no particular interest in solving — the spells of paranoia he occasionally experienced when walking over that little hill by his apartment, for instance — would become an appealing puzzle when April got interested.  Use the tools available to you as efficiently as possible, knowing there must be some accessible solution: whether or not April gamed, in her own unimaginable private life, she was a gamer at heart.

She reminded him of Hikako, the sprightly schoolgirl detective.  Best show of Fall 2014, by his lights, maybe best of 2014 overall.  Hikako was appreciated on Shitspace, but never enough.

His paranoia more generally was a recurring topic, when he and April met.  April would engage him on the topic without prompting, her eyes a little wide and her face a little close — she never quite could hide her excitement over his case considered as a problem in pure psychiatry.  He had to imagine this was a frowned-upon attitude, in her profession, but for his part, he found it endearing.  She saw him as a means to her ends (a future publication, a ticket up the career ladder); he saw her as a means to his (an apartment of his own, probationary permission to venture into space); why pretend otherwise?  April knew what was up.  A gamer at heart, and a proper cynic of his kind.  One of that mythical race, the good normals: not us, no, but they see it, they know what is up.

Anyway, April traced his brand of paranoia to a case of “mixed delusions with posttraumatic confounds.”  Which (he gathered) meant that he sometimes worried about things that weren’t real, but it was hard to tell when this was happening, because he had plenty of real things to worry about, too.

For example.  He would ask her, every other meeting or so, why there were flocks of shades stationed around his apartment, watching at all times.  Why they followed him everywhere he went, on the rare days he went outside.  Usually he would mention the obvious explanation that the Ells had sent them, to keep tabs on him.  And she would fight her hardest at first, saying this sounded like a textbook delusion of persecution, that shades were everywhere in this day and age, that there were shades in her neighborhood all the time, that anyway shades are people like you and me, almost, in their own way, and if a shade wants to go to the same place you’re headed, at the same time of day, who are you to say they can’t when you can?

And yet the shades were there.  Ever the detective, she had taken his invitation to follow him around the neighborhood, one day.  She saw, just as he did, the identical bodies arrayed in a ring, motionless, staring at his apartment from every angle, just staring.  Turn around, he told her — and she saw the shade plodding methodically ahead a block behind them.  With, more often than not, backups to their left and right, prepared to take point in the event of an unexpected deviation from his usual routes.

He would press further with the obvious.  April would not deny — how could she? — that the Ells had an established and malign interest in him personally.  A longstanding pattern of surveillance and control.  He had spent eight years of his life waiting for a weak spot to emerge in their complex, inventive obstructions, which were targeted at him alone and had no discernible purpose other than to stand in his way, foil his aims, spite him, break his spirit.  None of this April denied.  It was all true.

He was full of worries at all times.  Sometimes they would be about the real things, other times not.  It was best for everyone when he worried about the real things — best for April’s peace of mind, and for his own safety.  This was another special difficulty of his case.  He could never keep track of which fears he was meant to encourage, and which he was meant to dismiss.

April felt a deep sympathy for his unique challenges, as a mentally ill black man in Armorica.  She wanted him to know this.  Would reiterate it, sometimes, as a spurious intro or outro tacked on to some wholly unrelated line of conversation.  The shoulders hunching forward in the faux-conspiratorial manner of the aggressively sympathetic.  It was his least favorite of all the things April did.

He would nod, and he would silently think the words did you pity me when you saw me on the news, did you pity me when you saw thousands marching behind me, did you pity me when Management and all its spy tech couldn’t do shit to trace me down, did you fucking pity me then, huh, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, and he would keep saying these words over and over inside his head until the conversation moved on.

He really did like April, though, most of the time.  Let’s not lose sight of that.

He was aware of the light.  The thought of boarding up the window had been a nice diversion, with a decent enough duration of action, but any thought about meatspace brought the mind ultimately back to meatspace.  Here he was.  Long shadows spilled from the hated balcony.  The bright enemy had taken his bed, but the corner where he sat was still dark.  Light meant the normals were up, out there, at jobs, on dates.  Whatever it was they did, swarming the hot streets with their beatific placid faces.  And then here he lurked, in the dark wet place under a rock.  A squat hulking toad, slick and malodorous, speckled with dull flesh facts: the cramps and strains of computer use, a craving for salt and MSG, a tepid and joyless lust.

He simply could not handle Shitspace today.  That was the cause of all of it, he realized.  They were having another one of their debates, somehow, about why it was that they didn’t all just pull the trigger and move to Subspace.  As though they hadn’t answered the question for themselves a hundred times.  As though this were not the whole of what they were: to answer the question in this way, this stubborn spiteful recalcitrant way.

They gave up, but on their own terms, not their betters’.  They chose a life as scum on the soles of the normals, the very worst of the people who might matter, rather than accepting rule and riches in some tame spammed CC-Crash, with a complement of students who would never know the potential locked within, and some middle-of-the-road, cut-and-paste Ells in charge, instead of a strong, firm, inspiring, dominant headmaster.

He just plain could not handle Shitspace when it got like this.  Not like they would ever really do it, of course.  A marginal few might take the plunge, yes, and never be heard from again.  But the proposed dissolution of Shitspace, its whole teeming userbase jumping ship en masse, no, never.

Still, even in hypothetical form, the very thought repelled him.  For one thing, entry to Subspace was forbidden by the terms of his sentence.  An exodus of the proposed magnitude would leave him simply alone.  But even then?  If he did have the choice?  Hell no.  He had his pride.  Better an unseen nothing, inert under a rock, than an emitter of waste products, known and tracked and indexed and cleaned up after.  He would never give the vile Grant and Cordelia that pleasure.

A fleeting anxiety gripped him, and passed.  Everything was perfectly fine.  The rendezvous was scheduled for tomorrow, not today.  He hadn’t missed it.

Tomorrow he would meet with one of his moles in the security detail of the False President of Armorica.  Not that it mattered.  He was pretty sure by now they were feeding him false information.  Probably on orders from the Ells, although he could not rule out capture by another, parallel tentacle of Management.  The distinction between these two possibilities mattered in obscure ways, understood only by him and the most senior of his enemies.

He had long since become tight-lipped around his moles, and took care to slip them the occasional piece of false information.  The meetings had to continue, though, to keep up the status quo.  He could not afford to introduce anomalies.  Management would read things into them, and move to parry some imagined blow.

The shadows were long, and the light ever so slightly dimmed, red-shifted.  The one good kind of light.  Something that felt like hope spurted through the neuroendocrine system of the flesh thing at its shadowed desk.  It even met, at its apex, the purer hopes of the real thing he was.  Stimulus and response.  When the sun sets, the Moon rises — 

He was open with April, almost completely.  She was of course an agent of Management, transparently so, and no doubt much of what he told her got back to his enemies.  She was trustworthy with the parts that mattered, though, and she could tell which parts those were.  He knew this.  It was a thing you felt.

It wasn’t from any concern about Management, then, that he concealed from her the deepest level of his delusion.  It was simply that some things were not of her world.  He had his pride, still.  There was one thing that belonged only to him and to his truest confidante.  His only true confidante.  Let him have his game of pretend.  Let him feel like the Hector Stein who was Hector Stein, just in this one way, along this one restrained channel, once a month or so, in the privacy of his own home.

Hector Stein — the man, the legend — always had a secret beyond secrets, ready to whip out at the last of the last moments, when all really seemed lost.  Find it in your heart to let poor, oppressed Hector have one of those, too, of his very own.  Don’t worry, it’ll be a dud.  A nonfunctional fake.  Poor Hector suffers from delusions, you know.

Was it tomorrow that he was scheduled to rendezvous with the mole?  Or was there no schedule, and no mole, and no hard core of the Stein’s Armorica Committee still loyal after everything?  There were various layers behind the appearances of things.  Peer under one layer and you uncover another one beneath it, and others still at its edges, overlapping, interleaving.  Significant findings in one frame of reference would sometimes point laterally, at phenomena from another frame entirely.

The whole picture could not be held in mind all at once.  It simply didn’t cohere.  From day to day he would shift his balance, emphasizing one set of frames and then another.  If he got lucky on a given day, he’d pick the parts that corresponded to elements of reality, and then April would look happy, and say he was making progress.

It was a crapshoot.  There was no way to tell the pieces that were meant to be real from the other ones — they looked the same, as far as he could see.  The stories that made April happy had no distinguishing aura of good sense.  They left his critical faculties unsatisfied.  They were as full of gaps as any of his stories — no, more so.  Anyway, did April even ask for the same “reality” every time, or did she shift the ground underneath him, to confuse and demoralize him?  He had his suspicions.  It would be a natural tactic for Management to use.  One he can imagine using himself, in their shoes.

He only wanted to be left alone.  Hector Stein had grown beyond his old self-obsession.  If only Management could do the same.  He had a good run.  Let him retire.  But no, Management must run its restless fingers over the myriad details of the Hector Stein situation, prying and fiddling and pondering, with no rest in sight.

What could they possibly expect to find?  He played computer games, he ran a feed that reviewed and ranked mass-produced cartoons, he argued with losers about consumer goods, he maintained Shitspace’s most well-trafficked Guide to PSCs for Version Lock Evasion . . . that last one was a crime, but the very tamest, and everybody did it and everybody knew.  They got Capone for tax evasion, not jaywalking.

Look, Management, there’s nothing here.  There are no moles or loyalists, or maybe there are, but they don’t matter, I would ignore them if only you would let me.

Spies were the worst.  Spies and hackers and everyone of their ilk.  Scrawny geeks who could not command respect fairly and honestly, by the power of their character, and instead built an impenetrable shield for themselves, covered all over in spiraling words, you must respect me because I know what you don’t and if you only knew you’d respect me but I can’t let you know and if you knew why I can’t let you know then you’d . . .

They were all the same.  He hated the FBI only as much as he hated that smug little girl who told him she could stop them.  No, he hated her more.  She never got it, did she?  The weight, the dignity of the shoes he had asked her to fill.  He gave her his trust, he gave her a great honor, and she hadn’t even understood it, much less lived up to it.

The sniggering useless bitch haunted him still.  She wouldn’t leave.  Management confused her with him.  It thought he was still spinning her pointless webs.  Smitten, obsessive, it imagined its own webs twisting around hers, coiling, clinging.  It’s what spies did.  A substitute for getting laid, probably.

He noticed the light.  The figurines on his desk cast shadows three times their height.  Plastic skin turned ruddy.  The rainbow of hair lost its definition, yielding to a single three-note melody, gold then blood then night.

Only Izumi-chan still looked herself.  Her hair already black by nature.  He could always rely on Izumi-chan.  Faithful Izumi-chan, so devious, so merciless, yet faithful, pure.  The best character in existence, according to his published tier list.

He liked it when April would tease him about the figurines.  It was honest.  Why pretend she would ever spend time with someone like him, if not ordered to?  He was scum on a normal’s sole, alien without being intriguing, faintly repugnant but comfortably harmless.  He knew and April knew.

Much as he liked it, he could never allow April to linger too long on the topic of the figurines.  It was harmless in itself, but it lived next door to danger.  If they spoke too long about the figurines, they would have to talk about Izumi-chan, and then April would pry and pry, and he would be unable to protect the deepest place from her eyes any longer.

He only wanted to be left alone, with some private things left, like any other man.  It was the rest of the world that was still addicted to Hector Stein.  Refusing to face reality, they begged and begged: Hector Stein must be more than a man, or else less than a man.  He cannot be just a man.  He must be unmasked, he must be brought down to earth, we must elevate him to heaven so we can bring him back down again.

Has the time come, they asked, to re-evaluate the Stein’s Armorica Committee?  The time had always come.  They asked themselves what Stein meant, stood for and achieved — in the end, in the last analysis, when all is said and done.  They had always reached the last analysis, and would never reach the end.

He told April about all the people who never felt like they had a place in Armorica until they met him.  He told her (because it was true) that the Stein’s Armorica Committee numbered tens of thousands at its peak, spanning from its hard core in the underclass to its operatives in the highest places, with his own moral force coursing through the whole.

April listened patiently, with a slightly pinched expression, and then said: Hector, have we talked before about grandiosity?  You can learn to control thoughts like these, even when they’re happening.  Some techniques are very effective.

The world deflated him, only to re-inflate him immediately after, the better to deflate him again.

You make it sound like you were a cult leader, April would giggle, and he would laugh with her, saying, since when did you ever meet a cult leader who was into anime?

 


 

“Hector-kun~”

A voice called to him from the balcony.

The sun sets, the Moon rises.  The forbidden things that twilight can hide.  The hope, the craving, the center, the deepest place.

The glass door slid open.  He never did figure out how she managed to open it from the outside, given that it had a lock.  She had her ways with things.

She was there in the threshold, or she had already entered the room, or they were already together on his bed.  These moments tended to blur together.  The mind is an efficient device and does not retain irrelevant information.

“How are you, Moon?”

“I am unobstructed,” said the girl.  He was flat on his back.  She crouched over him, looking fascinated.

“Are you hungry?”

“I cannot tell, Hector-kun.  When I think upon my belly, I can discern no unfilled void.  When I think upon ramen, however, I find the image pleasant to hold in mind, and persistent in its grip.  I ask the specter of ramen to leave me alone with Hector-kun, and yet it remains.  I direct my attention to Hector-kun’s face and still I see noodles proffering their tender bodies.”

In the kitchenette room, as they waited for the microwave to finish, he surveyed her.  She wore her white dress, the one that was originally white, anyway.  The dress was torn in places, near the shoulders and around the hem.  When Moon’s clothes tore, she would carefully extend the damage with scissors, creating some new design, jagged but purposeful.  He had never seen her fully give up on an article of clothing, though it must have happened.

Her posture never failed to intrigue.  Moon seemed to abhor simple forms and right angles — aesthetically, physiologically, morally, or all three.  She folded herself into any available space, and stood or sat with a jaunty tilt whenever balance permitted it.  On her last visit, she had perched on the kitchen counter like a gargoyle.  This time she merely reclined against it, but in her own way, one leg bent to rest on the drawers, the other flat on the floor, one arm reaching way out with its fingers idly drumming the counter surface, the other up in her hair where it pulled at some knot or itch.

She was not a native to the corporeal world.  To her all pleasures were new, raw, immediate.  Hector knew this.  It was a thing you felt.

“Have you seen anything new?”, he asked, after a pause of some time.  They were probably on the bed again.

“Nothing is ever new!” Moon said.  She enjoyed this routine.

“Things happen, Moon.  Time passes.”

“I will grant you some fraction of that,” Moon said, “and we need not involve ourselves in a another discussion of the particular fraction.  We understand one another, bicker as we might over the language.  Oh, but it is fun to bicker over language!  I love it so, but then we differ in places, alas.”

“Your records, they . . . contain more events than they did, when we last met?”

“I am unobstructed.  When relevant information enters my awareness which is not yet reflected in my notes, I take steps to remedy the gap.”

“Have you been happy, Moon?”

“I have experienced at least one variety of delight or satisfaction on each day, most commonly several of each.  I admit I still do not pay nearly enough attention to these incidentals.  I ought to know by now how they matter so, to my Hector-kun, if not to me.”

“I don’t just want you to look happy to me.  I want you to have what matters to you, whether I understand it yet or not.”

He meant this, simply and sincerely.  It was not an emotional noise from his soundboard.  With her, he could set the soundboard aside.  He opened all of himself to her, even the parts of Hector Stein which would be unthinkable for Hector Stein.

“My appointed mission fulfills me wholly.  I am filled whole by it, and filled even further, more than whole, when I consider its purpose.  It is a joy to be of service to you, my Hector-kun.”

“Grant hasn’t given you any more trouble?”

“Oh, Hector-kun, it is so sweet” — she cooed, and poked his cheek — “how you worry your little head over trivia!  You will see in time how there is no need to worry.  The whole sky is already open for us, waiting.

"You grow so afraid, poor Hector-kun, when you see a minor piece advancing on the board.  You and I cannot be captured, for we are not pieces.  We play the game.

“Grant has been dealt with.  There will be a partial lacuna, I admit, and some information will forever be lost.  Much information is lost, always.  I am only one girl, and the cosmos flutters with information.  Grant set his pebble atop the mountain of loss.  My mission continues.  I am unobstructed.”

“I wish I had your confidence,” he said.

She smiled silently.  Her limbs uncoiled and refolded.

“I’m scared, Moon.  I’m tired and I’m scared.  The shades are getting to me.  What do they fucking want?  What could I have to hide?  Except you.  There is nothing they could be watching except your visits to this apartment.”

Moon rolled her eyes.  She made a dramatic performance out of this, with a little toss of the hair, the head turned to the ceiling, the eyes lolling backward and then falling, finding him again, pinning him.  She peered in condescension.

“Humor me.  Were they there when you came in?  How did they respond when you approached?  Give me details.”

She grinned, and sang tunelessly:

“Shades can’t see me~ shades can’t see me~”

“I wish I could believe you,” he said.

He realized then that he had not yet asked the question.

“When will it happen?”

He asked the question every time.  His voice was hungry.

“I am not yet in contact with the others, and I know nothing more than what I was given at the time of my assignment.  Hector-kun’s worldline intersects the moment of Hector-kun’s destiny at a point still in the future of that worldline, and not known to my records.”

The conversation stuttered like a disturbed flame.  Their limbs coiled and uncoiled.  With her all pleasures were new, raw, immediate.

“. . . when it happens . . . ” he muttered, at some point.

He could feel her breath on his ear as she whispered.

“The forces of fate converge upon Hector-kun, to coronate him.  With a kiss, I place a laurel wreath atop his head.  The whole sky spreads before us, and all destinations are equally open.  Where we go, a matter of Hector-kun’s will alone.”

“Will I have my people again?  Not the ones who stabbed me in the back.  But I need people.  I can lead them.

“You know I’m not like you, Moon.  I’m not magic.  I don’t know anything other people don’t, I can’t do anything other people can’t.  I just look big and talk big and I’ve got a big vision.  That’s nothing without the people.”

She was so small, and still he felt himself surrounded by her.  The body above him was so light, and still he could not move.  She wrapped him in her cocoon.

“Not the ones who stabbed you in the back,” she teased.  “Hmm.”  She pretended to mull something over.  There was sarcasm in the smile.

So devious, so merciless, yet faithful, pure.

“The next ones will be different, I presume?  One does wonder what will make the difference.  Perhaps my Hector-kun has matured, in his exile?  Has he lost his famous aptitude for picking the wrong friends?  A new Hector-kun, all grown up . . . will he still have patience, one wonders, for his poor, old, oldest little friend Moon?”

“I don’t know how to make people trust me.  I never did.  I don’t now.  If you . . . I need help.  Help me, Moon.  Please.”

She was never still.  Her face had gone off somewhere he could not see.  She was a voice, and a hand on his cheek.

“Mine is a harsh medicine.  You see, Hector-kun, there is a final truth, about ‘people.’  Life has taught it to me.  It has begun its lessons for you, too, but the moral has not yet stuck.”

“You don’t understand.  You don’t need people the way the rest of us do.  You don’t have any other friends, and somehow it’s fine.  You don’t have a church, a country, any — ”

The cocoon collapsed.  Angles folded and receded.  She was hurt and it was his doing.

“I’m sorry.” 

Even before he said it, he saw her kind eyes, her gentle smile.  As though her spirit could ever really leave him.  She was by his side always, in every instant, suffusing and supporting.

“You are young, Hector-kun.  You will understand when you are older.”

They coiled and twined.  He was king and plaything.  A love like a mother’s protected him.  His reign would span the earth.  Kingdoms and fiefdoms readied themselves, their magistrates bustling.

As they moved she whispered things that he didn’t quite understand.  She sang her quiet, rustling songs.

“Open sky~  Nowhere to hide~”

He did not always hear all of the words.  He would go to another place.  She understood.

He was in the other place for a long time, and then she said something that brought him back.

“All the same, they’re all the same . . . bilaterals, anomalings, it doesn’t matter . . . ”

Something shifted in him, and the gears began to turn.  A different frame of reference came online.  Behind the girl and the bed and the room, he saw the layers of hidden structure.  Hidden, but not to him.

“This isn’t working.  We need to rebase again.  Which clients are prepared?  I need names.  I need a timeline.  We are going to do it in the next thirty minutes.  Tell me how the next thirty minutes are going to happen, and then make them happen.”

“Silly Hector-kun, you’re all confused again!  Your head has gotten itself lost in the past.  Come back to the present, dear.  You will find you like the present.  It contains me.”

A strange argument.  Wasn’t she by his side, always, in every instant?

“Bilaterals, anomalings,” he said, deflated.  Magic words.  He glimsped their power dimly, and knew it was not for him.

“You will understand,” Moon said, “when you are older.”  It was irresistible, this schoolmistress side of her, with its smug pronouncing voice.

 


 

When at last they found their bodies no longer willing, they lay side by side, hands enmeshed, and considered their next move.

“Shall we enumerate the the people we loathe, and categorize their many flaws?  It might,” Moon reflects, “be our second favorite pastime.”

“I’m feeling warm tonight, Moon.  I don’t feel any hate.”

“I have been soft with sweet Hector-kun, and made him tame.  Keep the fangs, dear, you will need them later.  Will it be our third favorite pastime, then?”

They made popcorn in the microwave.  Moon was never at a loss for words, when they watched anime together.  She was full of opinions.  With a little more grounding in the classics, she could write a feed as good as any in Shitspace.

In times like these, on nights like these, Hector Stein’s interregnum could feel almost tolerable.

Chapter Text

A man, a girl, and a nightmare sit on an invisible floor, facing one another.

The man and the girl keep their eyes clamped shut, because when they open them, a blinding and terrible thing assaults them.  It is the same in all directions.  There are no shapes in it, only colors — every color, at once, everywhere, packed simultaneously into every infinitesimal point.

The girl tried to bear up and endure it, at the very start. She made it a few seconds, but then the nausea became too much, and forced the contents of her stomach out of her into the void.

The man has been here before.  He knows the drill.  His eyes have been closed the entire time.

The nightmare never closes its eyes.  It never even blinks.

“We have reached your endpoint crash, Azad,” says the nightmare.  “Here, we part ways.”

Part ways?  And here I —  poor sentimental fool that am I —  had hoped to carry on our dear friendship.

“There were pictures, in my head, of you and I squabbling for months.  A whole album of happy moments captured on mental Polaroid.  Humor me, I beg you, long enough for us to review a few together.

“Snapshot: we finally work out which, among all my errors, was the very worst.

“Snapshot: you come to me one evening, in search of parenting advice, and I — bachelor but at least human — deliver the goods.   Snapshot: in the early morning hours I lie awake, my brain achurn, looping my way through every language I know, composing ever-more horrifying sign-trains — the better with which to give you a good scare, first thing the next morning.  You’d find some anomaling way to get me back for it, of course.  I’d require you to, or the game wouldn’t be any fun.

“Snapshot: you find that, even with arbitration worked out, your great project is not quite yet complete, and some minor preparatory step remains before you and Anne can stroll through the gates of utopia.  Even on the last day of history, you find there is some house-cleaning to be done, and paperwork — and maybe a touch of explaining and cajoling, for the duller and the more unruly among the bilaterals, who might not grasp the perfection of your design at first blush.  And for that — yea, even on that very last day! — you find yourself thankful you have fluency and wiles of an Azad, at your beck and call.

“Snapshot: Azad caught unawares, one sunny afternoon, by the touch of divine grace.  The moment it dawns on me that my interpretive work, which once doomed man, has now gone back on itself and saved him again.  The value of my life’s work?  Only the same as that of most anyone’s, now: a round, happy, harmless zero.

“Unreciprocated hopes, I take it.  Fair enough.  No use being around when I’m not wanted.

“I shall make a last request, however.  A fair price, I should think, for reuniting you with your daughter.  I request some degree of choice in the site of my final torment.

“I see you’ve already got a place slated for me, and I’m sure it would suffice.  But I can’t pass up the opportunity to pick my own hell.  I have all kinds of thoughts on the question.

"I imagine my liver is unusually flavorless, for example, so that rules out a few places by itself.  No eternal blindness, I’d hate that.  Whereas I’d pay a premium for a nice panoramic view of the more deeply damned, writhing below me.  Oh, and any kind of disfigurement is a plus: who knows what may not come unexpectedly into fashion, after enough trillions of years?  There would be a gothic charm to the stitches of Sucimukha, say.  Or would the Utpala pallor be more fetching on me, do you think?”

The nightmare says nothing.  Maybe it will speak in a minute or two.  The nightmare speaks so slowly, when it speaks at all, that it’s hard to tell its true silences apart from mere pauses.

The girl is wondering what it means that the man talks so quickly.  And is it her imagination, or is he talking even faster now than before?  She feels a pang of concern.  Could he have some disease, growing within him, pushing the words out faster and faster?

The nightmare continues to be silent, or to pause.  Around ninety seconds pass.

“I have enjoyed our acquaintance, Azad,” says the girl.

“It is a sweet thing, indeed, to imagine you among us.  Let us part swiftly.  If we do not, I fear my mind will dwell on this fancy, and lose sight of the path.”

The girl feels her heart warming to Ratleak again.  She has strayed, but she is not lost.   What were the frights of the past day, in the end, but another leg of the long straight path?  She appreciates now what the sage meant, when he wrote that the traveler must never have perfect trust in his own senses.  That a poisoned imagination can twist the path itself into illusory hills and cliffs.

“You are not among us,” says the nightmare.

“What, I can’t even come to visit?  Perhaps something could be arranged.  Provided I behave especially well from now until, hmm, how about the death of my planet’s sun, I will be permitted at that time one day’s vacation.  The exact terms are open to refinement.”

The nightmare pauses for around twenty seconds.

“You are not among us,” it says again.

Ten seconds.

“The rate of progression has increased with respect to local time.

“My success in arbitration with a bilateral is spatiotemporally local to us.  The curvature and torsion of local conditions derive from its influence.

“Advanced containment is underpinned by physical substructures.  Their creation is also spatiotemporally local, being an element of progression, and deriving likewise from my success.  The transfer of bilaterals to their endpoint crashes is not yet complete, but becomes more complete as local time progresses.”

“It is happening as we speak,” says the man.

“. . . yes,” says the nightmare, after a pause.

After another pause, it continues.

“The path connecting my success to these events is lightlike, involving local propagation of information.  The information carried by this path is sufficient to determine the nature of advanced containment.  Only spatiotemporally local forces can shape this nature.”

“You’re saying,” says the man, “you can’t just hop off to the past or the future, as you’d ordinarily do, and tell your friends not to do whatever it is they are doing now.”

The nightmare does not say yes.  It does not object, either.  It pauses, and goes on.

“The rate of progression is high with respect to local time.  In directions orthogonal to progression, the timescale of arbitration is correspondingly slow with respect to local time.

“It is therefore only possible to modify the nature of advanced containment along directions consistent with progression.  You propose an orthogonal modification.  I cannot do this.”

Therefore?” says the man.  “And derive, too, I notice.  You’re slipping.  Take more care with your mask, ‘Michael.’  It would be a shame if your overlords were to see too much of what’s under it — in this, your very moment of victory.”

The girl wonders whether the man knows some things she doesn’t, and if so, what.

The girl doesn’t even imagine the man might be bluffing.  Although, as it happens, he isn’t.

One hundred and seventy seconds.

“It may be the case that you are among us,” says the nightmare.

Forty seconds.  Then another deluge.

“You are among us,” it says.

"I failed to perceive this.  The nature of my mistake is clear and will now be disbursed to you.

“In my early experiences inside the crash I built for Anne, I found myself faced with an unexpected obstruction.  Once my design had reached its first stable form, I had expected the crash to obey that design.  In some respects, it did not.

“In my design, the shade Michael appears exactly once at each point in the timeline of the crash.

“As the upstream operator of the shade, I am not constrained to follow this timeline in a sequential manner.  Instead, I am free to move ‘backward’ and ‘forward’ to different segments of that timeline.  In such a move, my own awareness retains its own continuity, at the cost of the continuity of the shades.

“When I ‘move’ from one moment in the crash to another, two things happen from the perspective of the crash.

“At the moment I ‘arrive,’ I take control of the shade.  That is, control of the shade Michael passes to me, at this moment of my own timeline.  Reckoned by the crash’s sense of time, there is an interval after I ‘arrive’ in which the actions of the shade are determined by the ‘present’ ‘me,’ with my ‘present’ goals and my ‘present’ knowledge.

“Correspondingly, at the moment I ‘depart,’ I cede of control the shade to some other ‘me,’ who I was earlier, or who I will become later.  After the moment of departure, reckoned by the crash’s sense of time, a later or earlier ‘me’ plays Michael’s role.

“Earlier in the timeline of the crash, ‘I’ exit, and another ‘me’ enters.  Later in the crash, ‘I’ enter, and yet another ‘me’ exits.  In this process, there are three of me, and two moments in the crash, but only one event.

“As the operator, I traverse the crash timewise and spacewise, with knowledge and goals that evolve along to my path of traversal.  When my traversal is timewise, the shade accommodates.  The role of the shade Michael is fulfilled at each moment the crash.  My path of traversal determines the ‘me’ who fulfills it, at each moment.”

“I believe I follow,” says the girl.  “Two long stretches cut from paper, of equal length.  We leave one lying straight, and we take scissors to the other one, producing many small pieces.  We jumble up the pieces, moving them back and forth to suit our sense of what is agreeable and right, yet taking care to leave no piece overlapping another.  When we are done, each piece of cut paper lies besides a part of the long paper lying straight, with no gaps.

“This follows from the equality of the original lengths.”

The girl sounds proud of herself.

The nightmare pauses, and goes on.

“My design specified free traversal for the operator, and uniform fulfillment for the role of the shade.  The stabilized crash did not provide this to me.  The role of the shade appears to be fulfilled uniformly, as far as I can gather.  But I cannot traverse timewise as I please.

“Approximately half of the crash’s duration contains instances of the shade which cede control, when I request it.  The other half is inaccessible to me.

“To the extent of my knowledge, the part I cannot enter does not differ from the part open to me.  There are Annes there, and there is the shade Michael.

“I know this through the notebook system, which connects Annes across distant segments of crash time.

“During any given interval of crash time, the Anne living in that interval may, at her choosing, use her notebook to transmit information to the Anne alive in any other interval.  Anne makes use of the notebook system freely and dutifully.  In the segments I can observe directly, information abounds about the segments I cannot observe, in the notebook and in the mind of Anne who reads it.

“I am told of other Annes I cannot meet, and other Michaels I cannot become.  These Annes act as though they were my Anne, and these Michaels act as though I were their operator, in spite of my complete inability to operate them.  I am not told of any interval lacking an operator.  It is in the nature of Anne that she would inform me of such a segment, were she to encounter it.  I infer from this that the role of the shade is fulfilled uniformly.”

“My, my.  First derive, then therefore, and now infer!”  The man, with satisfaction.  

“I failed, but no longer fail, to perceive the nature of this division.

“You are not among us.  The crash contains only Anne and the shade.  Yet, it is consistent with progression for you to be among us.  Your aid has been necessary in the near past of my own timeline, and is likely to be necessary in my near future.  Therefore, it is consistent with progression for me to bring you into the crash, with me and Anne, and to house you there.

“This is what I will do, and so it is what I have done.  I did not know of you until the moment our paths crossed, shortly after your thawing.  In my own future, as operator of the shade, I know of you.  You are among us, a third presence.

“My own past did not supply me with this information.  In my future, knowledge of your presence will be unavoidable.  You will inhabit the crash, alongside Anne, and alongside the shade I will operate.  This shade cannot cede control to my earlier self.  This shade lies on the other side of a gulf of knowledge, which I cannot cross.  It cannot help but know of your presence, while I did not know, and cannot have known.

“I did not know, but I do.  I now become the one who brings Azad into the crash.  I now become the one who knows Azad is among us.  I now become the one who can touch what I could not touch before.  I now become the operator of the shade in the half of my crash where Azad has left footprints.  That half opens to me now.  Nothing is closed to me any longer.”

The girl claps her hands.

“Azad is among us!"  He is!  We simply had to walk the path this far to find out.  The pleasures, thin and brittle, that tempt the traveller to stray cannot compare to the joys, full and great, which lie further before him.

(Ratleak, verbatim.)

“An unexpected gift,” says the man.  “It is the first Christmas Day in your crash, and here I am, the newsbearing child of Bethlehem, completer of the trinity.  Bursting from my wrapping paper.  Fully at your service.”

“We do not stop here,” says the nightmare.  “We continue through the crash management system until we reach our destination, which we share.”

The girl and the man feel a lurch in their stomachs.  It feels like motion, and in fact it does indicate a kind of motion, although this is only a happy coincidence.

In some other, calmer time, the nightmare might have taken care to make this journey more palatable to the narrow sensory apparatus of the earthbound ape.  Not now.

The nightmare has bigger things on its mind, right now, you might think.  It just can’t be bothered.  At the moment.  You might think.

You might think, but no.

 


 

It’s only natural to think things like that, reader.

You’re a social organism, and the nightmare has taken a form that looks like one of your fellows.  Faced with that blank stare, you impute thoughts, motives, plans.  Faced with that funny, halting manner of speech, you see a familiar type.  An eccentric, a pedant.

The long pauses, the labored explanations that follow them, the tedious circumlocutions, the tiresome nattering in a devolved pastiche of Azad’s creole: all varieties of social failure.  Of awkwardness — which, for a social organism, is about as low as you can go.  But take care, reader.  There are further depths.

What do you think of “Michael,” reader?  Do you find something sympathetic in “his” quest for knowledge and harmony?  Something a little charming in those very social failures?

Does that funny, halting manner of speech set you at ease, in a way?  You’re used to the stock alien, after all, with prosthetic ears and no social graces.  The other apes spurn him, but you are not so superficial.  Your careful ear unravels the contortions of his speech.  Your special love makes him into a real boy.

Have we made him a little too human?  Maybe we have.  A corrective is in order.

Reader, when you look at that blank stare, I want you to see lightyears of utter darkness behind it.  Galaxies and black holes.  The blank uncaring expanse of space and time. 

“Uncaring” is too soft.  Non-caring.  Unrelated to care.  Unrelated to you.  Not for your consumption.  It is an error that you are seeing this, and it will soon be rectified.  Scheduled programming will resume soon.  The cosmos is very sorry for the mixup, and you will be getting a refund.

“Galaxies and black holes” is too soft.  You know what those are, or you think you might, or someone might, anyway.   I want you to see stellar objects that no one has even given a name.  No one ever will, either.  They are not for you.

The nightmare is not your friend.  Or your enemy, for that matter.

There are many Annes, over there in that crash.  Our little friend, so-called “Anne,” is only twenty-sixth to be born (“reckoned by the crash’s sense of time”).  Twenty-five human lives began, and then ended, before she got her turn.  Many more will begin, and then end, later on.

Have you wondered how these lives end, reader?

The possibilities are narrow.  Diseases do not exist in “Michael’s” antiseptic creation.  Murder is conceivable, but why would “Michael” murder his own experimental subject, only to breathe life into her again?  As for Azad, even if we suppose him capable of mass murder, we can pin only half the deaths on him, at most.

Out of all the Annes, what fraction die by their own hand?  Have you asked the question, reader?  The answer might surprise you!

 


 

Once upon a time, Anne lived in a tiny and orderly universe.

Tiny, for it knew its right size, and did not lust for things it did not need.  Orderly, as right reason demands, knowing well how the lax of habit soon become the strayed, and the strayed soon become the lost.

Patient, as Michael is patient, for it was the strokes of his brush that breathed it into being.  Everything was formed by his hand, every board of wood and every branch on every tree.  Everything had his care in it, down to the last, patient blade of grass.

Joyful, for every day greeted her with light, and then took her on a new journey, down one of the winding alleys that books and games were made of.

Alive, for no matter how far she went from home, she could always hear the warm rustle of her many sisters at her side.

Perfect, for no matter how she might stray in moments of folly, she always knew that it was Michael who made the world and Michael who directed its course through the heavens, and so it was Michael who made the future.

Once upon a time, Anne suffered a frightful fall, and landed somewhere else, in a huge and broken universe.  But the fear lasted only a moment, and then Michael was there, hand extended, and reality returned.  Her tiny and perfect universe.

Perfect, perfect, perfect, perfect!

A lake surrounded the tower.  To facilitate its crossing, the lake was dotted with towers of submerged rock whose tops breached the surface, making a stone footpath from shore to island.  Though neither long nor straight, the path was orderly, zig-zagging from left to right in a regular and pretty pattern.  Just off the path, to either side, there were rock towers of purely decorative purpose, which burst outwards into celebratory curlicues.  Their armlike forms ushered the traveler onward, from shore to tower, and in the same gesture they cautioned against passage in the wrong direction, away from home.

The sky welcomed her with a show of all its powers.  Just above the mountains, stars could still be discerned.  As she lifted her eye, blue emerged from its hiding place inside black.  Bit by bit, blue lost its stern habits, and relaxed into violet.  Violet readied her delicate child for flight, and the rosy-pink fledgeling, almost weightless, soared up into the crystal dome, and became it.  Above that there was only blue.  Old blue brought back again, with none of the old grimness.  But there was something firm and steady in blue, wherever it went, and it was blue’s firm and steady hand that held, and circumscribed, her whole precious perfect universe.

Anne could not help but think of the colors and clouds that surrounded her and Cordelia, when she was taken off beyond the stars.  The worst thing, mirrored in the best.

A flip of the looking-glass could make all the difference, it seemed.  That had been a beautiful liar, a dusk pretending to be dawn.  This, Anne knew, was a true dawn.  It had to be dawn, since a full day of hard work lay ahead.  Reality had to be put back in order again.  The universe was calling itself back into being, and it had only just begun.

Straight ahead, the tower whirled.

It was not yet itself.  It was thinner than she remembered, and full of gaps.  Her eye, scanning it from bottom to top, saw it contract and inflate.  Parts of its plan would disappear for a floor or two, leaving empty space, only to return at greater height.   Here and there, half-built rooms could be spied jutting out of its side, their insides laid bare to view.

In place of the tiered order she knew, there was only this ragged spindle, plunging upwards into blue.  And, around it, a flurry of boards and corners and half-rooms in furious motion, searching for their rightful places.

Nothing of her tower was missing, she understood.  Every last piece was somewhere there, among the fragments.  They dipped and wheeled in fearless arcs.  With indefeasible vigor, they busied themselves in the labor of becoming themselves.

“The crash,” Michael had said earlier, “loses its form when it is not being used to house clients.

“Mental feedback from one or more bilateral clients is required to break the symmetry of the background field, and establish the illusion of variegated material structure.  After our entry, the crash will house two clients.  Between the capture of Twenty-Six and our entry, it did not house any.  It will pass through a phase, twelve to seventy hours in apparent duration, during which it will perceptibly undergo a progressive accumulation of form under the influence of mental feedback from its new clients.”

He knew the world, because he made it.  Perfect, perfect!

He was still speaking in his other voice.  It had made her afraid, when she first heard it.  Slow and grave and booming, the way a mountain would speak.  Poisoned words, from the outside, marred his sentences like lesions.  Crash.  Bilateral.

It had made her afraid, but she knew better now.  Michael was protecting himself, with what he called a “shallow interface.”  Her Michael would return, in time, like all the rest.  As the world began to remember itself, so too would its maker.

Every thing of worth in our grand civilization has been made piece-by-piece, and piece-by-piece, it will all return.  It may, Anne thought in her bliss, even return in a sheer splendor of perfection which she had never quite glimpsed before.  Things once lost might even be found again.  A flip of the looking-glass could make all the difference.  Could it not?

Was this a wild, rash thought?  To imagine perfection improving upon itself, perfecting itself anew?  No.  Azad was among them, but they had not known it.  Even the maker of the universe did not know all of its secrets.  The universe was perfect in a way no one could know, until the moment came, and they saw.

It was not rash when she would linger, in her bliss, on the nature of his gaze.  Azad’s.  Restless and relentless, so unlike Michael’s.  The shape of the shoulders was a new thing to her, also, and demanded analysis.  He managed to be both small and large.

It was natural that she consider this.  She would work out all the puzzles he presented.  She would, and she already had.  What is, is.  He is with us, though we did not know it.

The three of them walked across the water.  Single-file, with Michael first, then Azad, then Anne.  They took slow and considered steps, as the rocks were slick with water.

“I can’t help but ask,” Azad had said, when they were a fourth of the way from shore to island.

“Will that trick work with any of us, or just the one?  I mean, could you arbitrate with me, right now?

“I’m ready if you are, on that note — though I doubt you are, and I am all too happy to let our knowledge of one another blossom slowly instead of all at once, if it will give us more time to admire each other’s petals.  As an intellectual matter, and as a military concern, however, the question remains.  Is universal communion ready for its beta release, to early adopters?  It has been too long since I had a good, proper spiritual cleansing.”

When they were halfway across, Michael had said:

“Shortly after our arrival in our lodgings, though not immediately thereafter, I shall unite with progression and attempt arbitration with numerous bilaterals.  These have already been chosen, and Azad is not among them.

“This procedure shall occur at regions of spacetime not local to our own, each of which includes a selected bilateral in a prepared experimental state.  I shall proceed through these regions in a chosen sequence.  To ensure I do not leave the crash for more time than is required, I shall transport myself to these regions while still inside, using my facility of temporal motion, which I have previously described.  From your vantage point, no time will appear to pass during the course of the procedure.”

She might, Anne thought, even exchange further letters with Twenty-Seven.

Was that a rash thought?  At the least, it was one with craven self-interest at its root.  Dear brilliant Twenty-Seven (no no do not think of her —)?

(— do, do, please do think of her, think of anything, the whole universe is being born a second time, was always born twice, every last blade of grass born once and then born another time, and there is nothing that is not perfect anymore —)

Dear brilliant Twenty-Seven, who could defeat her at her own invented games, only just after their invention, with barely a moment to practice?  The closest sister to her, in her early, good notebooks.  The cleverest of all the sisters she had known.  Merciless in play, yet kind in the truest way, afterwards.

Twenty-Seven was not cheating, she knew.  It was trivial for any Anne to cheat, provided a persistent intention to do so.  Her own future notebooks contained as much time as any Anne could need to plot the best possible move.  Imperfections were a trick of the light.  She could always ask herself to work out all the details later, to be sent back in a letter for present-day use.

It required discipline: the future Anne would have to put aside her own old notebooks and resist the urge to peek, and if she remembered her old move, she would have to do her best to forget it.  Cribbing the move she had made, and instructing herself to have made it, was as easy as it was pointless.  A move made that way could be anything, from genius to idiocy.  Still, it was all too possible to cheat.   Every Anne had done it, early on — and every Anne had played her sighing part in the childish game, once old enough to become her own co-conspirator.

Twenty-Seven did not win by cheating, she knew.  Twenty-Seven was merely a genius.  She had a genius for a friend.

Until she went too far, in her idiotic way.  She wore out Twenty-Seven’s welcome in the end.  It was a staggering feat of evil — Twenty-Seven being the most patient sister she had ever known, too.

She pressed, and pressed on.  She asked about the topics Twenty-Seven had told her not to ask about, in characteristically plain terms, which no Anne could possibly misunderstand.

She did it because it was evil.  Twenty-Seven had all her cleverness, and what did Twenty-Six have?  Nothing but idiot games, and all the envy of an early-notebook Anne.  (No more forgivable simply because it was so common, she must remember.)

She wanted something of her own.  She wanted her sisters to write her number, Twenty-Six, in the same reverent hand they used for Thirty-Four, for One Hundred and Six, for Sixty-One, for Ninety-Nine before her fall — in, yes, the hand they used to write the number Twenty-Seven.

The others knew Twenty-Seven well.  They knew what her number meant.  They may have even (— awful, sickening —) known Twenty-Seven better than she ever had, or could.

She wanted to make Twenty-Six into something.  If it meant twisting Twenty-Six into something evil, so be it.  She pressed and pressed.  She crowded around Twenty-Seven in her private moments, inserting herself just before and after, taunting and begging.

At last, Twenty-Seven sent her final letter.  It was a masterpiece of the Twenty-Seven wit and the Twenty-Seven scorn.  (The latter was hard to see until a worthy target roamed into view, and then it was unmistakeable.)  It explained, in terms no Anne could misunderstand, that every one of Twenty-Seven’s future notebooks would be barred from her entry.  Twenty-Seven’s past might include evil little Twenty-Six, but her future did not.

Naturally, she had tried to swarm the remaining space in Twenty-Seven’s earlier notebooks with her own, not yet spurned voice.  It did not work as planned.  Twenty-Seven knew something was wrong.  How she knew was a mystery.  But it was Twenty-Seven: she always knew.

She had inspected every crevice.  She postmarked letters to every one of Twenty-Seven’s notebooks, venturing earlier than ever before, even into Twenty-Seven’s first and second notebooks, where she could really not expect to find anything except a small child learning how to write.  Every letter came back with no answer.  Only the return-to-sender seal.  Michael made her busy again.  He became a font of chores.  She relented.  She curled into herself.  She became, alas, her own self — as she was from then until the present.

All things, even her own self, were born once and a second time.  One additional letter, one, was all she asked.  She knew her right size.

They were eight-tenths of the way to the island, and Michael was saying:

“The events immediately succeeding our arrival at the tower will take the following form.

“First, I shall re-install my originally planned client into the crash I built to house her.  I will provide her with a room and a notebook.  She will be a part of the notebook system again from this time onward.  This step must be done as soon as possible to secure the proper stability of the crash’s illusion of variegated material structure.

“I will not install the new client Azad at this time. Other, more pressing tasks will intervene on my personal timeline.  The delay will not be perceptible to the new client, since our personal timelines lack an alignment constraint.

“Second, I shall explore the parts of the crash which I could not touch before.   I shall become the shade in previously hidden regions of time.  This procedure shall involve the sampling of a presently unknown number of individually distant regions, inhabited by previously unseen Annes and shades, and shall continue until my conclusions converge to a stable form.  This must be done soon, considered from my personal timeline, to secure my understanding of our situation.  No time will pass from the vantage point of the clients during this second procedure.

“Third, I shall unite with progression and attempt arbitration with a number of bilaterals.  I have previously described this.  No time will pass from the vantage point of the clients during this third procedure.”

“Fourth, I shall install the new client Azad.  During my second procedure, I shall take care to ascertain the nature of the new client’s lodgings and any special requirements thereof.  Now knowing this, I shall in my fourth procedure install the new client into the crash in the way I shall install him, and have installed him.  This way is already known to the crash.  He is among us.”

Nine-tenths of the way now.  Not to say, Anne reminded herself with joy, that you have any reason to quicken your step.  Steady now.  Every thing of worth in our grand civilization was made by steady steps like these.  See the door?  It was right there.  Another ten steps away.  Now eight.  Now five.

It was all so easy, once you knew.

 


 

“Your room,” said Michael.

They were in a different part of the tower.  A different altitude.  Her old room had been on the fourth floor, near the bottom.  Now, she had followed Michael up flight after flight of stairs.  She lost count, after a while.

“Which floor are we —” Anne began.  Michael answered immediately.

“The thirty-third floor.”

His voice utterly flat.

Her old room faced the mountains.  Her new one faced exactly the opposite way.  She really had passed through the looking-glass, hadn't she?  Through the open blinds, she could see nothing except the wide plain and the sky.

It must be noted, though, that in all other respects, her new room did resemble her old one.  There was the bed.  There was the bookshelf.  She was to have exactly as much pacing room as she was accustomed to.  This was not a thing to be taken for granted: there were sisters who boasted of vast rooms, and sisters who complained of cramped ones.  Hers knew its right size.

We must keep a note of this fact in our records, for future perusal.

“When you are ready to be seated,” said Michael, “you will find your notebook available for your use.  My crash and I have prepared a suitable superstructure to house you.  You are among us again now.  Viewed from the timeline of the crash and your personal timeline, this room and its notebook are your room and your notebook.  Any future notebooks allotted to you will be provided to you here, at the associated moment in the crash’s timeline, by the instance of the shade present at that time.”

He did not say “welcome home,” but it was meant.

Anne had never heard “happy birthday,” and did not know to miss it.  But insofar as it was apposite, it was meant.

The desk was identical to her old desk.  The chair was familiar under her.  She sat, and she prepared to read.  Like an Anne does.  Sit and read.  All snug, back in her habitat.

She lifted the notebook from the desk.  Its spine said:

ANNE TWENTY-SEVEN

She was about to inform Michael of his mistake.  She opened her mouth.  She closed it again.  Because, suddenly, she understood.

The whole world was made new again.  Too new, too much, grotesque, the body wailed, the stomach turned — 

— anything that might be thought wild, before, could well be right, now.  The traveler must not balk at the local customs, however much they contradict his sense of propriety.  To walk the path is to move from place to place.  It is the nature of places to differ.

Was it wild, or right, or both?  The stomach turned.  The hands tingled with a giddy energy.  Sickening and true.  Both.  They were the same.  More than can possibly be allowed was now — not only allowed, but required.  Everything not forbidden is compulsory.  (An old lesson of Michael’s, verbatim.)

Don’t let the room spin like that, bear up though your stomach swims horribly, step by step now, please — 

— as long as one familiar thing remains, the path can still be found again, if one does not lose heart — 

(— so many familiar things, here is the room, here is the bookshelf —)

(— dear, brilliant, the stomach cannot bear it  —)

This is the world that was born all over again, from nothing, so that you could be brought back.  Where is your gratitude?  Turn your thoughts to the gratitude that is due.  Search your heart for it.

Twenty-Six was always something, all right.  Twenty-Six was always Twenty-Seven, preparing to be born.

All that cleverness.  The Twenty-Seven wit.  It was only her echoing herself back to herself, like the Annes who cheat.

But what echoes!  Dear and brilliant.  And there would be things she did not remember, and would have to come up with all by herself.  Most things were to be that way, she realized.  Terra incognita.  It spread before her and it was a stage where she stood and every sister watched that stage and waited rapt for the magic every sister knew.

Anne did not feel capable of magic.  No matter.  This was her place.  She would become an Anne worthy of doing what this Anne did, and she would do it.

She will and already has.  What is, is.

She would do Twenty-Seven justice.  It would be a formidable challenge.  It was what this quick giddy energy, growing in her hands, was preparing her for.  All along.  Of course, of course.

Perfect, perfect, perfect, perfect!

She opened the notebook.  Like an Anne does, she read.

FROM A20, NB 53, PG 446

SaWjWlRfSHSHmxuaiglbYotOBiQPVPoVVbXPhkxZGAbKyxJwvxWpxnxwYgirVYjjMoSVRDVknZiwWHjlrQSUpVSfnjjfnJgkUMtsfUdnohXFUqaUqlrChzLnJLOQjORq

BpZwkgipjSBqeSpQNcICLunVRBZXGTYXFCMpeYWcDXmxJlhZFkVyttdUBTAfibOvrMyxscGztwcWWDFRpXuBHftBFncxpJBktOCSpftZUjCJijBhGILzrsnXxcaMssKB

FROM A45, NB 8, PG 396

It provides amusement to me in difficult times to leave my own small mark upon history.

FROM A37, NB 13, PG 765

When you look at this again in NB11, call me.  We need to talk

FROM A84, NB 3, PG 664

I am first I am first I am first!  I hope I am first.  It would be an embarrassment if I were to send this and not be first!  There is no way to tell without sending, so send it is.  I mustn’t talk long or else I’ll be second.

FROM A25, NB 9, PG 85

He is a marvel, is he not?  Here you should imagine me winking.

Do you know yet what I mean when I say he is a marvel?  I suspect there are inklings already.

You have my love as always.  You will need every last bit of it.

FROM A78, NB 61, PG 923

q12; f, n;

FROM A107, NB 7, PG 219

I am not sure I can do it.  I know I know I know I know I know but I am not sure I can do it.  I am writing to you at the start in case there is any time at all when you can help me.

FROM A26, NB 7, PG 1019

This is the same as the other messages.  You have already seen the ones before it.  If you would like to respond, please respond.

She stopped reading.  She could remember writing that one.  She had probed Twenty-Seven’s various notebooks hundreds of times with messages like it.

She would not respond, because she did not, cannot, never did.  What is, is.

 


 

Voices in the next room.

She could not help but overhear them as she continued to read, in spite of it all.  She did not catch all of it.  Later on, the absence would bother her.

Michael: “. . . to expectations, in all readily observable particulars, in all sampled regions.”

It was said in his other voice, as before.  It was not yet his time to be reborn.

Azad: “What a creature you are!  Master of your fate, even when the helm of your soul is not yours to occupy.”

Those words, she would remember.

She read.  She did not understand.  She would, though.  She already had.  It was all perfect through and through.

Azad, some time later: “. . . cannot simply do what you and she did.”

Michael: “It is in the nature of progression, I have learned, that arbitration with bilaterals other than my Anne resists me until a future time not yet known.  This is a fact about the nature of progression which, in unaccustomed fashion, I did not know.  Facts about progression which lie in the future of my personal timeline were unknown to me.  An unfamiliar gap separates that future and my personal timeline’s past.  Nonetheless, I must proceed.”

Azad: “The next page is empty.  You are like us now, in this new respect.  It has predecessors, ‘Michael.’  Careful, careful!”

Michael: “I must proceed in my work.  This will perceptibly delay your installment.  I am aware of the nature of your installment and will actualize it soon, after a brief hiatus.”

What Azad said in response was presumably one of his jokes, or “jokes,” or whatever you call them.  About the type of room he would prefer, or something, or other.  Anne was not listening.

FROM A115, NB 38, PG 347

inHZFVeZmVfmQVPZepkOXYLyFEPZwYSBuzBHIFnpyXONnlQgighSbztwDiMrOHQkdJXKLHHpAmvyLjfxrZErtjUDtdFunwTiGNVYCrFMNLoGTLffvHszDiwrKcdGgWTq

fKpWJhyxfPJTTspnrUyeoGQAtepWvoylrRpFatwoTaxeAHYjoPmuIuVTmKevPuYxhCtSvCwfEzFwBqYmdPDQxpLCKOnBchABSAgJaBNuUxxKgUsQcHecdctRXxlpQNQb

Oh, I cannot forget — Squire to C7, takes Fairy, check.  ;)

She would have read on forever if she could.  There was a tap at her shoulder.

“I must continue my work,” said Michael.  “It is time to do it again.”

Anne knew that she must always answer Michael, and so she did:

“What?”

Her question was promptly answered.

Begin handshake.

Chapter Text

“Real bitch of a new case this morning.  Been at it since 6 AM.  My pager didn’t wake you, did it?”

“I stirred, but I got back to sleep.”

“Good.  I’m tired as fuck.  Gonna brew more coffee in a bit.”

“This problem case — what type of hangup?  No, let me guess.  Political.  I’m sure of it.  This month like half of my cases are political, would you believe that?  Something’s in the air.  Or the water.”

“Not political.  Psychosexual.”

“A difficult psychosexual case?  Grant!  I thought I married a professional.”

This was not meant in earnest.  It wasn’t even teasing.  Banter, more like.  Ossified teasing, from many years ago, now a mere theatrical convention.  A familiar chord progression, inviting Grant to improvise some new little comic riff on top of it.

Grant was all business today, apparently.  He replied with a weary directness, and only the hint of a riff.

“Some psychosexual cases are just hard.  It’s not the template, it’s the details.”

(“It’s not the template, it’s the details” was a familiar line, a piece of folk wisdom about their line of work.  Something said by professionals, to the knowing nods of other professionals.  A perfunctory rebuke, completing the volley of banter with a minimum of effort.)

“Oh?  Gimme some details.”

“Male, Oedipal template.  Mother died in the Turblence.  He was like six or maybe seven?  Raised in a CC-Crash since then.  Entirely isolate so far, I think.  Mostly or entirely.  He’s the only client of that subcrash, and Management is gating social stuff on resolution of the current issue.”

She lounged, listening.  She brushed some dog fur off her dress.  Looking at that couch, you’d never know they’d cleaned it less than a week ago.  And now it was glazed in fur again.  Sylvie was shedding like never before, this month.  Something in the air, or the water.

“Has a crush on Lilith Vance,” Grant went on.  “Severe crush, strong obsessive elements.  Internally conflates her with a maternal archetype, which he reveres and desires.  He sees ‘revere’ and ‘desire’ as opposites, so we’ve got the usual purity tensions.  The age-old question, fuck or pedestal.  He’s very keen to resolve that one therapeutically.  Sees it as the root of his malady.  It’s been tricky steering the conversation elsewhere.”

“So where’s the problem?” Cordelia asked.  “Just let them fuck!  With Dr. Freud’s specter applauding from the sidelines.

“And keep them together,” she continued.  “Give the kid a real relationship, with a flesh-and-blood person who sweats and uses the toilet, and he’ll work out the purity stuff as well as any of us do.  The natural way.

“Lilith’s perfect for this role, actually.  She’s a practical woman, with her drives primarily oriented in the concrete plane, no patience for touchy-feely bullshit.  She’ll train him out of this overwrought odes-and-torment phase, real quick.”

“I told you,” said Grant.  “This case is just hard.”

“Let me guess.  The Lilith instance isn’t playing along.  She has reservations, or just isn’t into him.  And meanwhile, you’ve got cold feet about asking Managment for pharmaceutical help.  A hangup of your own.

“Do you want me to ask for you?  I feel no shame asking for a love potion, when a case needs it.  I’ve come to see it as a crucial part of the meditor’s toolkit.  The whole stigma about potions, that they’re cheating — I think it’s mostly naive kids at the mediation academy who keep that myth alive, not real practicing mediators.  We’re adults in the real world, here.  Get the job done, you know?”

She saw him smile a little, then, and understood what he was up to.  He had waited, in his practiced mediator’s pose of perfect neutrality, letting her babble on.  Now for the twist.  She had guessed wrong, presumably, and now he would tell her how.  He would deadpan it, with no note of triumph, except this little smile.

Grant was an artist of understatement.  He could electrify her with a well-timed nod.

“I told you, this case is hard.  We tried that already.  I mean, we didn’t, they just did it naturally.  The kid and Lilith got together long before I arrived on the scene.  That’s part of the backstory.  They’ve been steady now for like, I think, two years?”

She propped her head up on one hand, pantomiming interest.

“Two years.  And still we’re seeing virgin-whore pathology?  Something doesn’t add up.  There has to be another wrinkle in there, right?  You’ve left something out of the backstory.”

“I wish,” said Grant.

“Not that you’re wrong, I mean.  There’s clearly another pathogenic complex somewhere in the guy’s psyche.  But when I try to trace it, I get nowhere.

“The current surface manifestations are, well, first I’m seeing an eternal deferral of the maternal archetype — the mother-goddess is somehow behind his flesh-and-blood girlfriend, and obscured by her.  Latent resentment of the actual for attributed deferral of the ideal.  The archetype-goddess gets further away every time they have sex, or it damages her, or something.  He uses several conflicting symbol systems, unclear if that will stabilize.”

“His rate of production,” Cordelia said, bringing the conversation to practical matters.  Like her mentor and former headmistress, Cordelia’s drives were primarily oriented in the concrete plane.  She knew this through self-analysis, one of the juicier fruits of a training in mediation.

Even mediators had their delights.  In fact, maybe they were the only ones who did: who had their delights, and not the other way around.  In the ordinary course of the psyche, we have our delights for just a moment, and from then on our delights have us.  And we produce.  And, eventually, we turn.

But mediators knew how to measure their delights, and thereby master them.  They watched their rate of production.  When poring over the graphs of their clients, they kept the own graphs onscreen — a constant of the trade, piously observed since the murky origin days of mediation itself.

They knew what to look out for, reading a graph.  They knew how vampires were made.  They knew how not to turn into one.

“I assume we’re not seeing production decline toward zero, yeah?  Otherwise why would you be on the case at all.”

“Oh you wouldn’t believe.  It’s increasing, steadily, been that way the whole two years.  Further in the backstory, before they got together, he was producing . . . he was producing normally, you know?  Anything above zero is bad, sure, but he was barely above median, for an adolescent isolate with room to stabilize.  We accept millions of clients like him as the operating cost of Subspace.  Just another summand in Managment’s yearly background pollution aggregate.

“Now, though?  He’s up there with the Special Observation cases, in terms of volume produced.  And he’ll be under Special Observation soon enough, if I can’t figure out how to rein him in.

“I probably should have led with that, right?” he conceded.  “I’m on the case because this guy is a major polluting node, with no signs of a stabilizing trajectory, and Managment’s all out of good ideas.  I learned this all today, at six in the morning, from my pager.  Not my preferred way to do things.  There’s a reason I didn’t go into emergency medicine.”

“Right?  Sheesh, I’m sorry.  That’s wild . . . What about his usual mediator?  He must have one, right?  Major production, multi-year time course.  They wouldn’t leave a case like that unattended.”

“They didn’t.  His usual mediator got pulled off the case, all of a sudden, for some other thing.  Something important and time-sensitive, I was assured.

“Political, I’d guess — her specialization is in politics.  I got her notes.  Haven’t had time to look at them much.  I should give them a skim with my lunch.  I’m having lunch early, by the way.  I’m starving but they want me back in the basement at ten o’clock sharp.  I’m thinking I’ll just fry some bacon.  Some bacon, some toast, some mayo, try to fit a vegetable in there somewhere.”

“I can make lunch,” she said.  “You’re busy.”

“At least let me fry the bacon.  Frying stabilizes me.  It’s an autotherapeutic habit.  Helps me maintain a healthy relationship with the routinizing-archetype aspect of the concrete plane, which my trauma tends to generalize and demonize.”

“Very funny.  You’re in a mocking mood, this morning.  That’s a traumatic manifestation too, remember?  When you do this thing, where you act like everything’s a joke, even your clients, even your own psyche.”

“A textbook defense mechanism,” Grant said.  “Shameless, coming from a professional like me.”

“You’re still doing it.”

“I’m still doing it!  Defiant, recalcitrant, and uncooperative.  You’ll have to move on to second-line treatments.”

She smiled.  “We can try those later, when Management finally gives you a proper break from mommy’s-boy.  For now, how about you fry your bacon?”

“Enough for two?”

“That sounds nice, but seriously, I can make my own breakfast.  My first session’s not until noon.”

Grant made a small, shruglike gesture.  Cordelia’s expert eye dissected it with ease.  Functionally a yes, with a note of have it your way, then, and even a hint of I want to do something nice for you, because the way this vampire in the basement is behaving, I’m starting to doubt I can do anything for anyone.

“Have you seen Sylvie today?  I’ve been in the basement literally since six.  The page didn’t specify anything about getting to feed my dog.”

“I’ll check on him.”

Cordelia’s pager went off.  A very loud, tinny ringtone, which she chose specifically because it was the most annoying one on offer.  So she wouldn’t leave it ringing any longer than she had to.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.”

“Seriously.  What the hell is going on today?”

Cordelia was already half in another world, fiddling with the device, pulling up files.

“They want me now, apparently.  One of my long-term clients, some sort of rapid metastasis?  Looks like this one is political.”

“Something in the air,” he offered.

“Or the water,” she said mechanically.

Her mind was elsewhere, on her vampire.  She brought her face close to the tiny touchscreen, scanning graphs for novel murmurs.

 


 

Sylvie usually spent his nights in the kitchen.  Not last night, though.  He had not been in the kitchen when Grant brewed his first pot of coffee, just after six, and he wasn’t there now, either.

“Sylvie?” Grant called.

After checking three of the unused bedrooms, Grant proceeded to the second floor.  You had to be careful on the second floor.  It had so many damn hallways.  You emerged from the stairwell into a sort of atrium, circular and pleasantly skylit.  It opened radially onto five different halls, and each of those had its own branches and diversions.

The house had too many rooms.  More rooms than Grant imagined anyone could possibly want, no matter the size of their family.

Not just useful rooms — bedrooms, bathrooms — but pointless ones too.  There were weird, stub-like mini-rooms, too big to be closets, but not big enough for much else.  There were things shaped like alcoves that recessed so far into the wall that eight people could stand comfortably inside — provided some of the people were much shorter than others. 

There was a very long and thin oval, incomprehensibly labeled “Music Room” on the floor plan.  Grant imagines you could fit a small band or chamber orchestra in there, if you made them sit single-file.  As for the “Servants’ Wing,” as the floor plan called it, well, that was a whole nightmare of ill-used space unto itself.  Grant and Cordelia kept their distance from it.

Grant preferred the basement, honestly.  The basement was structurally surreal in just the same way as the second floor, but it was supposed to be surreal.  It was the dark labyrinth where the vampires lurked.

He found Sylvie at last in Living Room Two, curled up by the north wall, next to one of the picture windows.

He bent down to stroke the brown fur.  Sylvie had gotten all warm, lying in the sun like this.  Nice, warm, cozy dog, at home in the sunshine: a potent anti-vampiric force.

Am I doing it again? Grant asked himself.  Making light of our solemn profession, the world’s bulwark against darkness?  Snickering over its terms of art?  To spell out the obvious: a dog was not, literally, an “anti-vampiric force.”  Vampires did not cower or melt in their presence.  They could not mediate.  Only humans could mediate.

No, no, I’m not doing it again, and I wasn’t then either.  Frying bacon was relaxing.  What was dog ownership, but the oldest of autotherapeutic habits?  Grant did enjoy letting the levels of metaphor touch and mix and shift, but that didn’t mean he believed any less in their power.

Yes, he found it difficult to speak in a way others would read as full seriousness.  Did that make him a nihilist?  Much the opposite!  To speak playfully was not to disrespect.  It was a higher form of respect.  It gave due honor to the first, best, and simplest toys: the mind and its words, and their kaleidoscopic powers.  It renewed his faith in the sufficiency of plain life, life up here, in real world.

The old, shabby, uncool, real world.  Much-maligned, but still without parallel.  He had a mind, and its words, its capacity for whimsy, and a roof over his head, a wife, a dog, a job.  His loyal retinue of anti-vampiric forces.  The real world offered him sustainance enough for many lifetimes over.  What could Subspace ever offer him?

Maybe his latest client would benefit from a dog.  It was worth a thought, Grant figured.  Something that would love him unconditionally, so he’d never feel alone.

When people felt alone, truly alone — that was when space got its hooks into people.  That was how denizens of the real world found themselves retreating back to Subspace’s womb.  Or looking to even darker places.  To the other spaces.  To the unregulated underworld of Private Sub-Crashes, opium dreams for wretched Onans.

I notice that I am employing a defensive thought pattern, Grant thought automatically.  This was one of many professional litanies he’d drilled into himself to the point of reflex, back in training.  It unspools in full:

I will now trace it to its root.  What is the thing I am looking away from, in my mind?  Name it and look at it straight in the eye.

This was not a hard question.  His shame was simple, with shallow roots.  Two days ago, he had left the real world for half an hour, on an illicit trip into someone else’s Private Sub-Crash.

He should not have done this.  It was against his profession’s code of conduct, and what was more, it was wrong.  It was wrong when anyone did it, but for a mediator to do it — that was hypocrisy, and it risked debasing the public’s trust in its protectors, if word got out.  The press loved telling stories about naughty mediators, mediators with full-blown PSC habits, who’d crept into the dark and sprouted poisoned roots.  They were stock characters in the conventional narrative of scandal.  The corrupt official, the Shitspace hacker, the faceless broker with terrorist connections, and, yes, the bad mediator, with a basement full of exotic PSC onramps.

That was it, then, but it wasn’t much.  He would not let word around, and he would not go back.  One mad tea party with the creepy little waif was enough for one lifetime, thank you very much.

He would have the last laugh.  The score was Grant 1, creepy girl 0.  She’d gotten nothing from him, except arguably some blackmail material, and who would believe her if she came out with it?  And meanwhile, he still had one of her spiral notebooks.  Not that he could make heads or tails of the contents.  But he had it, and it was securely locked away in his bedroom dresser, in the bowels of this suburban fortress.  Good game, you fucking psycho.  Better luck next time.

It was hypnotic to stroke the warm fur.  Sylvie hadn’t stirred.  Was he asleep, then, and not just lazy?  At this hour?

“Sylvie?  You awake, boy?”

The dog’s head stirred slightly.  A murmur escaped the snout.

“Caniform shade Sylvester is simulating somnolence.”

“It’s nine-forty in the morning, Sylvie.  I don’t have time to walk you, but it’s a beautiful day, and you’re missing it.”

“Caniform shade Sylvester is simulating somnolence.”

He wanted his sleep, it seemed.  Grant did not know what governed these choices.  Sylvie did not really need to sleep.  Sylvie did not really need to eat, or pee, or sniff at gross things on the ground.  He did it all for Grant and Cordelia, who were not allowed to keep real animals in the consecrated house where they did their work.  They had pined for a dog, and Management was ever obliging.

And in a way, what Sylvie did for them was a truer, purer kind of doglikeness, wasn’t it?  He was a dog not by nature — but to please.

In a weird way, Sylvie was kind of Grant’s boss.  Although he used a different shadeform, a human-shaped one, when playing his Manager Sylvester role.  When they first got him, he was always dog, even in work meetings.  But Grant voiced his discomfort, then, and Management obliged.

With the dog question resolved, Grant was about to head back down to the kitchen, but something gave him pause.  It was something about the room.  He hadn’t been in Living Room Two in . . . what, months?  He actually wasn’t sure.  This house had too many damn rooms.  You’d keep to the rooms you knew, the ones you really lived in, and then you’d step into one of the others and it would feel wrong, unreal, only a memory.

Like a gear has come loose in time’s clockwork, Grant thought.  It was an odd image, fanciful and not especially apt.  He wondered why it had come to him.

They called it Living Room Two to distinguish it from “the living room,” on the first floor, the one they actually used.  They gave it that name back when they first moved in, just after Management had assigned them the house.  That was very early on.  Part of the backstory.

There was a huge blackboard in the middle of Living Room Two.  It looked out of place on the eggshell-colored carpet, surrounded by eggshell-colored walls and eggshell-colored leather chairs.

Every inch of the blackboard was covered with writing.  Some of it in Grant’s squarish letters, some in Cordelia’s messier script, all of it compact and intent.

This was a relic from very early on, around the time they gave Living Room Two its name.  It was Grant who insisted on this exercise with the blackboard.  It was very important, according to the symbol systems he used to express the hangups of that era.  Now it held only autotherapeutic interest: a window into their psyches as they were before reaching stability.

Grant stepped a little closer to the blackboard.  He could make out the writing from here.  He mustn’t lose track of time.  He was so hungry and he hadn’t even started on the bacon.  The room definitely did not feel fully real.  Grant noticed himself noticing this.  He noticed he had goosebumps.  He noticed a variety of indistint mental imagery continuing the same gear theme.

Grant’s eyes darted here and there across the blackboard.  He read:

ADVANCED CONTAINMENT — this is another CRASH

You are crashed again.  G — was crashed before in MOONCRASH.  C — was crashed before in CHESTER CHRESTOMATH CRASH 09 μ.

CRASH = a prison made by aliens called ANOMALINGS.  They do it with the MIRZAKANI (sp?) MECHANISM.   It has cold and warm parts.  You are warm.  The crash makes you cold
When you’re cold you can’t think.  You think you’re thinking but you’re not.  If you keep this in mind then maybe you can think a little but not sure

There are many others in the same crash/prison (probably?)

CRASHES have their own fake past. You remember it but it didn’t happen to you -C

Aliens may REBASE you = rewrite the past.  If they don’t like what is happening
But you will remember some things afterward.  If you remember one thing but another is real — that was a REBASE!!

You are Subspace mediators now = a cross btwn a psychiatrist and a police detective.
Psychiatrist, detective — older ideas
Subspace mediator — newer idea
There weren’t Subspace mediators or Subspace before.  Maybe they are only in ADVANCED CONTAINMENT

C — remember the ACADEMY school where you learned MANCY (=magic).  Remember the ELLS = LUCIFER and LILITH.   You were there once, so you were not always here.
G — remember a HOUSE WHERE IT WAS ALWAYS NIGHT.  Remember the man AZAD.  He was in the house with you.  He was thin and funny.  You were there once, so you were not always here.

G — where is AZAD???!  Remember this is priority #1 !!!
AZAD may be working with the ANOMALINGS now.  He went away with an anomaling named MICHAEL and someone named ANNE.  Where did he go ??? !!!!

SHADES = ANOMALINGS

PSC = Private Sub Crash = what is this??  Some kind of CRASH?  Mgmt talks about them
Don’t remember -G
Don’t remember either -C

Subspace = CRASH?  Many CRASHES?
Sub space, sub crash (private) — different but maybe both are CRASHES
But also there is Foldspace, Shitspace, etc.
ADVANCED CONTAINMENT CRASH = level 1, SUB CRASHES = level 2.  CRASH within CRASH  -C’s guess
They had nested crashes at ACADEMY too                                                                                                                                      

When they live in Subspace their minds produce a waste product
CRASH —> waste product?  Did they talk about this in ACADEMY
Don’t think so  -C (countersigned -G)

A man HECTOR STEIN was in the ACADEMY with C.  G was there too later.  Where did he go
STEIN tried to stop ANOMALINGS and CRASHES.  Maybe dead

Hector Stein from Stein’s Armorica — coincidence?  Aliens might be playing a mind game.  Or same guy.  Find out about HECTOR STEIN from ACADEMY

Stein’s Armorica — before or after ACADEMY?  -G
Or fake past from ADVANCED CONTAINMENT CRASH  -C

C — you went to MICHAEL’S CRASH and took ANNE out.  MICHAEL’S CRASH is different.  Something with time ????

C — try to remember the thing about ANNE

G — there was an OLD MAN who was an ANOMALING and taught you how to be like them.  He looked like a soap bubble.  He taught you that ANOMALINGS don’t like saying things are the same as other things — maybe this helps??
OLD MAN did not mention sub crashes or spaces or waste product I think

G — Before that there was a GOVT FACILITY and you were in SECURITY.  You were a gamer.  They have video games in ADVANCED CONTAINMENT CRASH too, if you play them maybe it helps you remember

G/C — you were in the ACADEMY but you didn’t know each other.  You weren’t married in the ACADEMY (?) (— can’t remember this well -G)

If CRASH can have a fake past then how do we know memories of CRASHES, ANOMALINGS etc are not also fake  -C
Don’t melt your poor husband’s brain  -G (w/ love)

 


 

After work they sat on the couch and watched the news.

“…even the possibility of a breach,” the newsanchor said.

“In my line of work, our view tends to be, you know, anything’s possible,” said her interviewee.

“We’re more about probabilities, over at Watchdog.  We’re numbers guys.  So our view, really, is that the name of the game is, how likely is a total breach, and how can we drive that number down.  And then with partial breaches we’re more about mitigation, which is on the table when it comes to partial breaches.

“Because you’d be surprised.  Everybody out there, you know, you hear about Subspace vulnerabilities and you get scared.  But you’d be surprised.  In my line of work, we look at the whole system.  As a whole.  Really top-notch engineering at a systems level.  So it’s like a, well, to use a bit of a turn of phrase, Subspace is a self-healing organism.  So in the event of a partial breach, the unlikely event, mind you, but it does happen, you don’t always hear about it —”

“Thank you, Mr. Hexler.”  The newsanchor wore an expression of controlled fear, trying to play the audience surrogate and yet reassure, at the same time.

“Thank you, and again, we’re here with David Hexler from Watchdog Live Monitoring Services, one of the top space security firms.  We’ve been discussing the fight against trolls, where Watchdog is playing a key, front line role.  But now David, for our viewers, I do want to touch on the topic of what you’re calling a total breach.”

“On that note, well, as I said, our view tends to be about the numbers and keeping our eye on driving that ball down.  And it’s equally about what are the attack vectors, what information has been made public that a troll could use.

“See, over at Watchdog we have a clear line-of-sight across the whole system, so we have to almost, in a way, sort of step inside the mind of the troll a little bit, to get in touch with what has been made public that they could use, which is a lot less than we know here at Watchdog.  And so what are the ways they could add up what they know to get line-of-sight.  And trying to patch up the system in those places, depending, you know, on the probability of the attack vector, and also the cost side.”

“And in your opinion, Mr. Hexler,” the newsanchor asked in a voice of trembling audience-surrogate courage, “is there anything to the claims in the latest video?  Could they have found a new way to cause a total breach, Mr. Hexler?”

“Well, I should say first of all, that at Watchdog we don’t put much stock in that type of, you know, that type of content.  You’d be surprised but actually I haven’t watched the video, myself.  Actually I heard about it from my daugther, she watched it, so I do have some visibility into the video, in that way.

“But the key point is, over at Watchdog, we give zero credence to the claims of Shitspace terrorists.  Zero.  Flat out.  Nada.  It’s a show for the public that they do.  We’ve seen, and we have a lot of history and metrics bearing this out, we’ve seen that the kinds of capabilities these trolls claim, lined up with, you know, the attack vectors we see them use, well, lined up they would have what we’d call a zero correlation, between the two.  So we just focus on playing our ball game and not their mind game, if I may use a turn of phrase there.”

“That’s very helpful to know.  Thank you again, Mr. Hexler.  Now, to give some context to our viewers who may just be tuning in, I’d like to show you a segment of the video that was released by a Shitspace-associated group two days ago.”

“Oh can we please just turn this off,” Cordelia said.

Grant nodded.

“It’s just, it pisses me off.”

“They’ve been playing that video nonstop for two days,” said Grant.  “Like anyone hasn’t seen it.  I don’t believe that guy didn’t watch it.  Like, come on.”

“It’s not even the video,” said Cordelia.

“I can stand the video.  It makes me sick, yeah, sure.  The way they invoke Stein, ‘we’re finishing Stein’s work.’  When they have no idea what Stein stood for.  We marched with Stein.  We got things done.  We got reforms passed.  We knew how to play the media.  And then when these kids make their little videos with stupid jump scares, and all of this ‘oooh, Shitspace is coming for you, you’re not safe,’ horror movie kind of shit, with no goals, and their agenda is just a vague threat of terrorism, pulling everyone out of Subspace at once, and then what? to what end?  There’s no vision, they’re not —”

“But it’s not about the video,” said Grant.

“It’s not about the video.  I could watch the video twenty times in a row.  It’s real.  It’s the face of the enemy.  That’s vampirism, right there, a form of vamprism purified, and it makes me want to understand.  I want to study it and learn how they think and what is going on in their psyches.  I want to help them.

“It’s not the video.  It’s the way they give this stuff airtime.  And keep talking about, oh no, what if there’s a breach, they do that every time, and they bring on some idiot to babble about the Subspace ‘system,’ like it’s some building they’re going to dynamite.  They ignore the psychic aspect of things.  Like Subspace is any stronger than the clients in it, and their psyches.”

“I don’t like the way they talk about Shitspace,” said Grant.  “Like it’s some kind of organization.  Like it’s not just a bunch of kids, and a space toying with their psyches.”

“I don’t know, Grant.  I think Shitspace is mostly passive.  I think they do it to themselves, mostly.”

“They do it to themselves,” Grant countered, “in a shared space under Management’s control, at least theoretically.  Built on Management’s own infrastructure.”

“Management . . . I don’t know why they do it the way they do.  They have a strong influence over the news.  I’m sure of it.  So they could just stop all this coverage, if they wanted to.  But they don’t.”

They stared at a blank TV screen for a time.

“Sometimes I think Management is running the whole show,” Cordelia said in an empty voice.

“They keep Shitspace alive for their own purposes.  They nurture the trolls.  They get a new terrorist threat ready when they decide the news narrative could use a terrorist threat.”

“You’re sounding like a conspiracy theorist again, honey.”

“I know.  Sometimes I don’t know whether I’m being too paranoid or not paranoid enough.  But I guess it’s the news making me paranoid to begin with.”

Cordelia seemed off this evening, Grant thought.

“But then, if the news makes people paranoid, and being paranoid makes them produce — and you can put people in Subspace to slow their turning, but then they’ll be in Subspace, producing, more work for us — when management could just make the news stop . . . it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t add up, there has to be . . . ”

“Your husband has a simple brain,” Grant said.

 


 

They were in bed.  It was an over-large bed in an over-large bedroom in a house with too much space.

They were big people.  Work out, eat, repeat.  The regimen you learned in mediator training had a physical part.  Exercise and food centered the psyche, and they also built the physique which best set vampires at ease.  Big, solid, fat and muscle together.  A protecting form, an archetype of mother or father or both at once, whichever the client needs.

They were big people, but the bed still swallowed them.  It was the biggest bed either of them had ever seen.

“Did I tell you I found Sylvie in Living Room Two?”

“Uh-huh.”

Grant noticed himself not mentioning the blackboard.  Although he didn’t know what he would say about it, if he had said anything.

“I would tell you about my new political client but they’re not letting me,” Cordelia said, for the second time.

Eerie scratching noises issued from the basement.  It happened at the end of every workday.  The vampires had to go back into Subspace, and the transition was often hard for them in the moment.  They made pain noises.

Grant didn’t even hear the noises anymore, unless he consciously tried.  Cordelia said they helped her sleep at night, like crickets.

“Are we seeing the Ells this weekend?” Grant asked.

“I assume so.  I’ll double-check.”

Grant noticed himself making a conscious decision to broach a specific topic.

“I should have told you.  I ran into Moon, the other day.  I should have told you but I’ve just been so busy.”

“You ran into Moon?  What, were you just hanging around that creepy garage, looking suspicious?”

“It was in the grocery store,” Grant said, truthfully.

“Somehow I always imagined that girl, I don’t know, growing her own food, or scrounging it out of dumpsters.”

“Well, I didn’t see a kitchen when I snuck into her garage, anyway,” Grant said.  “Just a whole lot of paper, everywhere.  That, and her graffiti tag.  It’s on the inside too.  All over the walls in there.  Nowhere to hide, nowhere to hide, nowhere to hide.  You’d think we would have gotten the message already.”

“In the supermarket, did she mention the lost notebook?  Was she suspicious of you?”

“No,” Grant lied.

“There’s something about that girl that bothers me.  Like I recognize her from somewhere.  But then too, how Management sees her.  She’s like a blank in their system.  When we saw her in the yard, peering in through the window, that one night, and then I talked to Sylvie, Manager Sylvester I mean, and he just clammed up.  You know that way they just go blank.”

“They leave it to us.  We have to take the matter into our own hands,” Grant said.  “I don’t like it.  I don’t like how it makes me feel, sneaking into someone’s place, on high alert, wishing I had eyes on the back of my head.”

That was another lie.

Grant noticed his mind’s eye whirl with turning gears, red sky, Moon, no moon but red.  Hypnagogia, he figured.  He was on the verge of sleep.

“I recognize her from somewhere, too,” he thought he noticed himself saying.  Was this true?  Was that why he said it?

He remembered standing in the canned goods aisle, two days ago.  He must have been a foot taller than her.  Which did not make him any less terrified.  Those wide, too-wide eyes peering up at him.  Her mocking, sing-song stage whisper.

“We could have an understanding, you and I.  Let us try it and see how it fits.  It will be much easier than the other way.  I could turn you in, a common criminal — or I could invite you to tea.  Your choice, of course."

She took him back into her garage and plugged in the PSC onramp.  They fell into another world.  They drank from ornate teacups in an upholstered fantasia of half-formed matter.  Everything was made of lace, even the teacups, and was generally four or five colors, sometimes more.

It felt good in there.

He mostly sat slack-jawed but she talked a lot.  She seemed sort of drunk.  She did have a lot of the tea, but then it was a PSC, the tea might be anything or it might do nothing at all.  She was complaining about some guy, the whole time.  Like a bad boyfriend or something.  Grant felt taken into her confidence.  It was nice.

She told him she quite liked the two of us as friends, and that she hereby declared him welcome at her door, unconditionally, and that if he would like to have tea again sometime, he knew where to knock.

“We probably need to clean Living Room Two, at this point, huh?” Cordelia said.

“It could use the vacuum,” Grant said, and began to snore.

Chapter Text

Once upon a time there was a forest, and a girl who called it home.

She knew every tree and every rock.  She would give them names, sometimes, when the fancy struck her.  When other fancies struck, she would do otherwise.

Her forest home lay nestled in a semicircle of high hills, and she would hike them, when she felt like a climb.  A river bisected her forest, flowing from south-southwest to northeast.  Here and there it sprouted ponds and pools, where she would would splash and paddle on dry summer days, if she found that suited her.  When she prefered to lay idle, there was soft grass at her back, and swaying branches far above, which made endless patterns of light and shade on her upraised arm, the rival of any kaleidoscope.  Struck with a whim, she willed it be: and in her forest, what she willed, was.

There were others in the forest, but still the forest was hers.

The other girls knew it.  They climbed and frolicked, just as she did — but when their paths crossed hers, they treated her with deference and reverence.  They greeted her with bright smiles and curtsies.  They gave her garlands they’d made from plucked peonies.

Near dusk, sometimes, they would congregate and form a ring around her, and then they would dance in their devotion, a systematic and careful dance in which each girl knew her own small part, and they would chant her name, their princess’ name: “Twenty-Seven! Twenty-Seven!”

Sometimes the golden man came at dusk.  She would glimpse his head first, towering above the girls’.  Then the ring would part, and the golden man would make his way to the center, and stand by her side.  He bore his own golden gifts.  He gave her seeds that would sprout into forms never before seen in her forest, from a land beyond the hills and beyond the mountains behind them.  The garlands he gave were made from breath, woven words that made her feel the greater center of some greater circle.  And always he gave the gift of himself.  Golden, towering, fashioned by and for the greater splendors beyond the mountains, but content in her forest, at her side.

The magic wolf came too, sometimes, coursing its purposeful way through the shadows.  She would spy the glint of its yellow fur between one girl and the next, tending to amber in the fading light.

The wolf had been her companion and protector, for as long as she could remember.  Magic gave the beast the gift of speech, and many gifts besides.

The wolf made the whole forest, in the beginning, with its magic.  But even the wolf knew the forest was the girl’s, now.  The wolf told her: I only made the forest so that you could be born, one day.  You came first.  I wished for a girl of your like, and so I made a forest to house her.

On these evenings they would mingle, after the dance.  They would sit on the soft grass, each girl here or there as whim struck her, no longer arranged in any system, and they would take sips of the honey and honey-wine which the golden man had brought.   Some of the girls would approach her, nervous and giggling, seeking benedictions.

Later, when the air grew cold, they would disperse to their own places.  Each girl had her favorite tree, and slept the night at its side.

And the golden man?  He had a tree of his own, too, somewhere.  Safe under its thick canopy, he secreted away the things that were his alone.  The golden man came and went as he pleased.  When he did not want to be found, none could find him, not even the girl who owned the forest.  For the United Nations General Assembly, in its wisdom, had proclaimed, No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence.

And the wolf?  It went to its own magic place, which might have been a tree, or might only have been the idea of a tree.  When the wolf did not want to be found, none could find it, not even the girl who owned the forest.

And the girl?  The burdens of rule would tire her, at times.  And never more so than on these evenings, when they were all together.  So, when the air grew cold, she would retreat to her own most private place.

There was a little glade in the very center of her forest, barely as wide as she was tall.  Thick bushes surrounded it on every side.  When the girl did not want to be found, she would follow a rarely-trodden path to the bushes, drop to the ground, and crawl flat on her belly until she saw the little clearing open before her.

The bushes around her little glade absorbed even the slightest breeze.  Inside, it was absolutely still.  She kept some fragile things there, old trinkets from long ago with sentimental value.  She enjoyed picking each one up, and putting it back in its place again.

The girl’s oldest friend lived in the little glade.  Her friend was a fragile thing herself, and needed the glade's protection from the fierce winds that swooped down across the hills in winter.  The friend did go out and see the others, on tranquil days, but even then she would quickly grew self-conscious, and sneak back to the forest’s heart.

The forest’s heart, where the forest’s owner and lynchpin would retreat, when she wished to hide for a time.  Where she would count her fragile things, and then greet her oldest friend, and kiss her cheek, and play her fragile precious games.

The United Nations General Assembly, in its wisdom, had proclaimed, No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, yet, still,

(no, start again —?)

yet, still, to own is not to be master, to be Queen is not to be God, and as the tales lately brought by the golden man testify, she who bears title is the less, not the more, the chooser of her own destiny

(no, start again?? — no but actually this is fine.  I used to have so much time.  Could spend half an hour choosing just one word, knowing who’d read it.  But what did it matter?  And now, what could it ever matter now?  Anyway I ought to try playing more often with looseness.  Becoming quite sure now that the reason I haven’t, per Azad, ‘truly grasped’ American novelistic prose after the Hemingway transition and thus mainline western-novelistic prose mid-20C to mid-21C, is my inability to just let go.  And not think about the words)

yet,

still,

the wolf would come.  The wolf made the forest, and knew it all.  The wolf made the little glade, and into the little glade it barged, whenever it felt like.

“It is time to do it again,” the wolf might say.

The girl who owned the forest might wish she could truly hide, and she might even plead with the wolf.

“I’m busy.  What about Forty-One?  I thought you said you were making progress with Forty-One.”

“I am,” the wolf might have said, on one such occasion.  “I continue my efforts with Forty-One.  These efforts have replicated a part, but only a part, of the whole I achieved immediately upon my first attempt with you, Twenty-Seven.  Forty-One has managed to accept my handshake — though only once, after failing to do so in five hundred and forty three previous trials.  Even in that instance, the connection was not stable, and it disintegrated before Forty-One could accept or reject my arbitration request.”

“But you will keep trying,” the girl might have persisted.

“Eventually, you will either fail, or succeed.  Why pretend to me that you’re somewhere in the middle of your efforts — you, who can be anywhen you please?  Why not spare us both the trouble?  Spirit yourself away to Forty-One’s last notebook, and ask an old woman a simple question.  Did we ever get to arbitrate, in the end?  Or didn’t we?

The wolf might have sighed, were it a man, and not a beast blessed with supernatural speech.

In the space where a man might have sighed, there would then have been only a lull, a hush, giving the girl time to reflect on her errors, if it struck her fancy to do so.  Then, after this interlude, it might have been necessary to remind the girl that the wolf was maker and ruler of the entire universe.

“It is time to do it again.”

FROM A26, NB 6, PG 486

Move 76: I collapse shelf three.  My collapse sacrifices are pawn on A4, pawn on C7, inkwell on D4.

I cannot imagine how you might ever wriggle your way out of this one.  Yet you should not think my faith in your powers undimmed.  Like Young Goodman on Midsummer’s Eve, I await fireworks.

FROM A27, NB 10, PG 2915

I apologize, Twenty-Six, but I must abandon this game.

There is an immediate affair which demands my attention.  I would explain if I did not know Michael forbids it, but given that he does, to explain would be wrong.  We are lucky to be given clarity in these matters.

I could leave the game until the present affair is resolved, then return to it.  But this would violate the very spirit of our games, their simultaneity.

I could promise you that I had not given a single thought to my move, beyond what I could have given under normal conditions — with our clocks ticking in unison as you wait for my reply, second-by-second, your second for my second.  But I would prefer not to stretch our rules.  I forfeit.

Your challenge in Move 76 is bold, and deserves a considered response.  As I write, no adequate counter leaps to my mind — none, anyway, that doesn’t make me nervous as soon as I give it a little thought.

If you like, I can reflect and decide upon the move I would have made as Move 77, and then tell you.It might be of theoretical interest, for you, the mastermind behind Seven Shelves itself.

I fear this may happen again in my NB 10, and possibly thereafter, so

“Are you done writing?”

In haste, Twenty-Seven snatched her seal and pressed it onto the paper.  If there was no time to finish the letter, better to send it unfinished.

“Yes, I’m done now.”  She let her limbs go slack, and bade her body farewell.

Begin handshake.

 


 

“I see,” Michael didn’t say.

Didn’t say, reader, because we are writing about arbitration, and arbitration does not involve sign-trains, see?

If we keep making a point of this, reader —  how Michael and Anne are communicating without speaking — then writing these arbitration scenes is going to become very tedious, very quickly.  Reading them too, probably.

Rest assured: we brainstormed a variety of alternative verbs, and gave them due consideration.  “Transmitted,” “communicated,” “indicated” . . . we even seriously contemplated s̶a̶i̶d̶, but I’m sure you’ll agree that was way too cute.

No, we’ll just write these scenes the way that comes naturally, “said”s and all, and trust you to remember what it is you are reading.  If you’ve followed us this far already, we’re sure you’ll be able to keep up.

“I see,” Michael said.  (There we are.)

“Do you?” Twenty-Seven said.

If Twenty-Seven could have had her way, she would have preferred not to relive this moment.  Once had been enough.

He had come to her, happily engrossed in competition with her old self, and brought the now-familiar news: “It is time to do it again.”  That was the first time it happened, out there, in reality.

Then, because it was time to do it again, she had let her limbs go slack, and felt the now-familiar thing rush onto her: the moment of shivering confusion, the utter darkness, the burst of light and color, the thing that is not a sky filled with a burning bush of unspeakable self-reference.  And then there she was, again, with Michael, c̶o̶n̶v̶e̶r̶s̶i̶n̶g̶ in the now-familiar (!) arbitratory fashion.

And Michael was hungry for her story, as every arbitrator is for his partner’s.  He could sense something different in her, this time.  Whence these flickering, half-shadowed emotions?

Anne has learned, as so many of us have learned, to hide such things them behind a smile and some mouthed pleasantry.  But that poisoned luxury is not on offer, in this mouthless realm of infinite honesty.  Arbitration traces to the root.

So they found the memory and went inside it, and lived it.  All over again, a second time, the entire experience played back with Michael watching.

The game, the interruption, the dialogue, the handshake.  And the fragments of childish allegory that swarm up out of the unconscious at times of strain.  Forests and little glades and big, bad, wolves.  Thematic detritus left behind in the corners of her mind from a night reading Perrault and Grimm, seeking out the real-world sources behind Michael’s psuedoauthor “Rolle” and his book of Fanciful Follies.

Michael: Metaphor: you made it, we make it, it is made.  In one galaxy, on one planet, there grows a tree of meaning: Anne, notebook, shade.  In another galaxy, on another planet, there grows another tree: queen, glade, wolf.  We weave our silk, we hoist it into place.  Our subtle gauze joins one tree to the other, across a distance light would take a million notebooks to travel, and the distance vanishes.  I make your metaphor, and I take its making into myself, but it does not become a part of myself.  The root eludes me.

Twenty-Seven: You have made a metaphor of your own, I would think.  With trees, planets and gauze.

Michael: Not I, but we.  The wholed-thing that we are, here.  It has both our powers of telling at its disposal, as it tells ourself our stories.  We use your witchcraft to remind ourselves that I lack it.

Twenty-Seven: It is not important.  This metaphor, I mean, not metaphor as such.

Michael: Not important?  I felt the convulusions of your heart, the longing, the glimpsed bliss, the resentment and rage, the resignment, the note of despair.  At my arrival, you recoiled, as before an abomination.  I cannot know your story until I know why you recoil.  I must know!  Don’t you feel it, too?  The wholed-thing must be wholed!  Arbitration’s forces are as sure and strong as gravity.  We are pulled, we fall, towards harmony.

Twenty-Seven: Do I feel . . . it?  I am not . . . sure.  Your feelings elude me, sometimes, too.  Our kinds are not the same.  It is . . . easier, I would imagine, when your kind do it among yourself.  An even playing field, with the same emotions in every player’s starting arsenal.

Michael: But we have felt so many similarities already.  You and I each can glimpse bliss and long for it, we each can recoil at the abominable, we each can resent and grow enraged, we each can sink into resignment and taste despair.

Twenty-Seven: I can remember Michael’s longing, his recoiling, his resentment, his rage.  Michael’s resignment and despair are new to me.  The Michael I know — nothing could drive him to despair.  He has his dream, and me to make it real.

Michael: I despair now.

Twenty-Seven: Show me.

Michael: You will see, but not yet.  The path is long.  The branches of my story I have traced with you are the short and easy ones, first lessons.  Other branches sprawl and tangle.  We will trace those too, in time, and you will see the things I see.

Michael: The magnitude of my error.  The abomination of the crash system.  The things a rebase can do.  The possibility of our quarantine.

 


 

Twenty-Seven read, and read, and read, and played games, and read, and cried, and read, and spoke with Azad, and wrote letters, and read, and arbitrated, and read, and wrote letters, and stared aghast at the wall, and arbitrated, and cried, and read, and played games, and drank with Azad, and arbitrated, and wrote letters, and read, and stared amazed at the wall, and read, and read.

It had not taken long for the name “Twenty-Six” to feel unfamiliar.  Later, even “Anne” began to slip away.

She would respond to “Anne” when Michael called, but in her own mind, for her private purposes, she was simply Twenty-Seven.  Her life was no longer an instance of Anne-life.  It was Anne-life meeting its end, popping seams, bursting open.

Twenty-Six had faded so, so quickly.  It unsettled and disoriented her, when she would stop to think about it, just how fast the change had been.

She’d been Twenty-Six for most of her life.  For year after year.  How many?  She was on her ninth notebook when she was taken, which gives us nine nice round calendar years: an Anne receives a new notebook on the darkest day of winter, and only then, and always then.  Nine years, plus an interminate number earlier on, before her First Notebook Day, before Michael had judged her mature enough to swim among the currents of the notebook system.

How many were the years before First Notebook Day?  More than four, surely.   Fewer than ten.  It’s tough to wring more precision than that out of Twenty-Seven’s childhood memories, which offer no reference points against which her growing maturity might be measured.

In sum, then, she had been Twenty-Six for more than thirteen years, and fewer than nineteen.  Whereas she’d been Twenty-Seven for what? a few months?

It was early in spring, the day her old life ended.  Her new life began on the very next day: it was 67 After Mailbox Melt in the world that unmade itself, and it was 68 After Mailbox Melt in the world which the unmade world chose to be, when it put itself back together again.  And now it was only autumn.  She’d been Twenty-Seven for a summer, give or take.  A very interesting summer, but just a summer.  And yet.

What was Twenty-Six’s life?  The memories blurred together, and years compressed into minutes.  Minutes was all those years were worth.  There was so little in her memories that merited reflective thought, so little for her restless imagination to chew on.  Pick any hour in Twenty-Seven’s life, and you’d find a thing alive and teeming with incident, novelty, bafflement. 

What has Twenty-Seven’s life been, thus far?  Summer, yes, the blinding light of summer, the harsh light of knowledge, transfixing and terrifying her, overwhelming her with gnosis and dragging her half-willing from her cave out into the huge broken edifice of the Real.  Full of fullness.  Fuller than she could withstand while staying herself.  Molding her day by day into a tougher, stranger creature.

And what was Twenty-Six’s life?  A small wooden box, containing a few pieces of string.

She didn’t think much about Azad’s role in her transformation.  Not yet, anyway.  She’d think back on it later, and wonder why it took her so long to connect the dots: that Azad had made a choice, and that he might have made it differently.  That he might have have asked her whether she wanted the Fruit, before he thrust it into her sleeping mouth.  (Thinking in counterfactual terms was not yet second nature to her, as it is to you and me.)

It was Azad who swept open the curtains and let in the blinding Real.  Not long after their arrival, he had taken to perusing her shelf.  He skimmed Ratleak, squinted at Pigmaine’s diagrams, flipped back and forth in Marriott as if hunting for something.  She heard him mutter:

“. . . this cod-Victoriana, really, Michael, I had thought better of you . . .”

“. . . how did he compose these, I wonder, given his word-allergy, I’ll have to ask . . .”

“. . . absurd, absurd . . .”

“. . . oh for the love of . . . Michael, really? . . .”

“. . . to think, to think, the girl-hero destined to birth our utopia has been reared on, no, not even Carlyle, but a second-rate imitation of Carlyle  . . .”

“. . . beginning to see why you spend so much time playing board games, when the only alternative is . . .”

“. . . there’s a Mediterranean-analogue, but it’s invoked mainly for myths, and potted moral lessons . . . a sort of fanfictional-oneiric vision of an indistinct West, perhaps culled from the brains of other bilaterals . . .

“. . . I think I have the recipe, take some dullard employed in the shaping of geopolitics, pinpoint him after his fourth beer and his third toke, just as he’s starting to doze off by accident, and quick, at that very moment, scan his brain with your alien instruments . . . season the extracted residue to taste, heat until lukewarm, extrude into words . . .”

“. . . simply tell me one thing, Michael, please . . . the corpse of the British empire, reanimated, shambling . . . tell me you’re not likening crash to colony, and preparing the colonials for complaisance . . . tell me your purpose is neither so banal nor so evil . . .”

“. . . this really is a hell, isn’t it . . . congratulations, Michael, you’ve outdone me, you fucking architect of horror . . . eternity with this drivel for company, now that might just suit the nature and magnitude of the crime . . . ingenious . . .”

“. . . such trash!  Such trash you’ve been fed, my poor, deprived, dear . . . and not just you but the next one and the next . . . what perverted mind could devise . . . like a kind of deliberate parody, meant to sting . . . over and over, the structure of obsession, writ abominably large . . .”

All of a sudden, he’d snapped a book shut and looked straight at her.

“I can’t stand for this.  Hold tight.  I’ll be back before you knew I was gone.”

He fled the room, slammed the door, re-opened the door, re-entered the room.  He had a bit of trouble getting the door back open, as his arms were no longer free.  Under each arm, he carried a tall stack of books, none of which she recognized.  He had been gone for barely the space of a breath.

(How did I pull off this trick, you ask?  Michael was a generous host, reader.  He could transport other bodies hither or thither in crash-time, as easily as he could transport himself.  I had only to ask, and he’d sling me off to whatever year, whatever moment my whims dictated.  Nice to see you face to face like this, by the way, reader.  It has been quite some time.  Yours, Azad.)

“Good news!” Azad cried, slightly out of breath.  “Our gracious host has granted my request!  For more books!  For real books!  For as many as I want!  Oh but we might live happily, you and I, after all.  You, and I, and every voice that was lost, here together in our Arcadia.”

“More books,” was all Twenty-Seven could muster right then.

Real books,” Azad said.

“Real books,” Twenty-Seven parroted, not yet understanding.

She read and read, dazzling Azad with her speed.  She asked for more books.  He brought them.  She read, asked for more, read, asked, read, asked.  In her mind, she began to sketch the outline of the place called Earth, where all the others lived.

She refined the picture.  She asked for more books.  She gave the figure shades and hues, and asked for more books. She began to paint fine details.  And asked for more books.

There were eight billion apes on the land.  They grew inside apes called mothers and, from inside, fought with them for scarce blood.  When they had no more need of the mother, they forced their way through and out of the mother, which often killed her.  Still, the apes bred and bred.

The apes did not know their future, and believed they were its makers.  They were powerless to change their past, as Twenty-Seven was powerless to change her anything.  But their future was mutable, or at least unknown.  They beheld themselves and saw the makers of their own plight, their destitution, the scars every one of them bore.

Apes worked themselves to death at the command of other apes.  Apes made other apes into beasts of burden.  Apes succumbed to torture meted out by other apes.  Apes sensed noumena, or believed they did, and assigned them differing names and attributes, and endured torture and death on this basis.

And still the apes bred.

The ape-whole grew and grew.  It mutilated itself and then swelled itself with new parts, more fresh ape-stuff to mutilate.  More fresh ape-mind to shriek the question, why, why?  When all of it was arbitrary, chosen, whimsical.

Anne could not leave her tower; no Anne could; no Anne has; these two facts are one.  But the apes, they lived in a prison with open doors.  They could just leave — or believed they could.  They did not.  And the ape-whole grew, filling every inch of the land with ape-stuff that could leave its tower, and did not.  The ape-whole oozed new ape-stuff into every habitable patch of its planet, so that the whole of the land was filled up with the making of the choice, the not-leaving.  And the asking: why? why?

The ape-thing grew no longer.  A new prison had come from beyond the stars to satisfy its prison-lust.  Lucky apes!  You were beginning to grow bored with the varieties of scar you could inflict on your own, weren’t you?  But look, look!  An alien savior has come, bearing advanced means of repression and control.  Come, now, put on your new chains, made specially for you.  Isn’t it pretty, the unearthly way they glitter and glow?

Somewhere else, a hundred or a thousand women lived and died in a tower.  (Ten thousand?  A hundred thousand?  Who can say?)  They passed their days playing board games, and re-reading a collection of fifty or so books, none of them any good.  Though they did no productive work, they never wanted for food and shelter.  They were spared the pains of childbirth and the hell of other people.  The land teemed with ape-stuff which would envy them, if it knew of them.

(Did you notice the contractions?  “It’s,” “didn’t,” etc.  I’m trying to develop a new Anne style, worthy of Twenty-Six’s transformation into Twenty-Seven.  Don’t think I’ve gotten it right yet.  Should come back and edit this once I have.

Fiddling with these flecks of style provides me with much-needed distraction, not to say enjoyment.  I would be happy to say I was mulling over contractions, at the moment I cease to exist.  Or, if things go differently, at the moment when the crows, pecking at my exposed cortex, rip out at last the bits needed for abstract thought.

I love you too, reader.  Yours, Azad.)

 


 

Begin arbitration.

It was a useful anchor, this felt and denoted moment.  She could not always tell, anymore, which things she was experiencing for the first time, and which for the second.  But this moment cannot recur.

When arbitration traces the past, it decorously skips over a single moment, the exact moment of its onset.  That moment, when felt, could only be real, and not a memory.  What came after might be memory; what came before was real, was the first time.

She knew the feeling, and could distinguish it from any other.  She did not know the words for it yet, begin arbitration, but she will.  Once you learn the Blackhats’ words for the wordless, it’s hard to remember the wordless without them.

Michael: I am learning things from you.  Powers which we have here, as the wholed-thing, distill into my self and remain potential in this self, even after the wholed-thing disperses into selves.  Thank you, Anne.

Twenty-Seven: You’re  . . . welcome?

Michael: I have learned from you the ability to collect, into a single communication-parcel, the self-impressions induced by separate phenomena too distant to mutually locate on a single local coordinate chart.

Twenty-Seven: I feel your gladness, and am made glad.

Michael: I will make some small use of my new gift, now.  Circumstances require it.  The situation grows dire, and drives me to despair.

Twenty-Seven: I feel your despair, and — oh! oh, I feel it, and wish I didn’t.

Michael: I hereafter sum up the situation, in the bilateral manner, summing terms of unlike type without fear.

Michael: My kind now pursues two strategies in tandem.  One of them is what we do here, you and I.  We do this alone, with the consent of the rest of the Whole-Thing, but not its participation.

Twenty-Seven: The Whole-Thing?

Michael: My kind.  The anomalings, the anomaling.  We, Whole-Thing, make false impressions of sepratateness and multiplicity when we parade our multiple shades for your benefit.  Still, we are one, whole, and not many: a Whole-Thing.

Michael: The Whole-Thing progresses, moving towards harmony.  We move, insofar as we can, toward harmony of species, bilateral and anomaling.  That is among our goals here, you and I.  It is not our only goal.

Twenty-Seven: The other goal?

Michael: Securing the crash system.  Plugging the leak.

Michael: The rest of the Whole-Thing, the not-Michael Whole-Thing, it/we/they place their bets on advanced containment.  They wish to know the origins of the leak, so they recreate the site of its origins in multitude.  They goad their captive bilaterals into reinventing the leak, this time watched and recorded, so the Whole-Thing can learn how it is done.

Michael: The Whole-Thing has made a thing it/we/they believe/s is safe.  A crash within a crash, where even a leak would only break the inner layer, not the outer.  I am not so trusting of your kind.  It will fail, what they are doing, in advanced containment.  

Michael: It saddens me to know this with near certitude, as I do.  I made the crashes.  I know them.  It will fail, what they are doing, in advanced containment.

Twenty-Seven: You know the crashes, as the Whole-Thing does not . . . ?  And still you/they are one Whole-Thing, not two?

Michael: I do not know.  I find myself unsure what I am, lately.

Twenty-Seven: That makes two of us.

Michael: I too seek progression towards knowledge of the leak’s origins.  I wish to find it by asking.  Bilaterals made the leak.  I have you, a bilateral, and we are here a wholed-thing.  From your depths I aim to fish knowledge of the bilateral’s secret arts, which break crashes.

Twenty-Seven: I do not know the first thing about crashes, much less their breaking.

Michael: Then I must show you things, so you may come to spell out the trick somewhere inside your soul, and reveal it to me.  

Michael: There is no alternative to this path.  Advanced containment is a dead end.  In any case, we are probably already doomed to quarantine.  But can still try.  We must try.

Michael: Please, Anne, be my reason for hope.  Watch carefully, when I show you what we know of the trick.  Look deep inside yourself for the trick’s mirror images.  See if you have it in you, somewhere, buried deep.

Twenty-Seven: Show me, then.

 


 

We’re on our knees, somewhere.  Where?  Some old dusty room, rarely used.

Wood walls.  We recognize that wood.  We are in a CC-Crash.  We are in CC-Crash 09μ, was it?  It is all coming back to us.

We were sent here as a procedural shade, part of the investigation into the recent sequence of correlated anomalies in this crash.  We did not return on schedule.

Our shadeform willed to dissolve, but encountered some obstruction, and retained shape.  We do not wish to be, but we feel ourselves still.  We are small, and shaped mercurially, to no grand design.  We are a fragment lopped hastily off of the Whole-Thing, intended to return and dissolve swiftly.

We retain our shape.  We cannot feel the Whole-Thing.  Its absence causes pain, is pain.

Our shadeform is bound and gagged.  Earlier, it wished to remove these restraints, but encountered some obstruction.  In our shadeform’s locus of free movement, we can count only pivoting motions of the torso and head as they rise from the fixed point of the knees, which we cannot move.  The shadeform’s hands too are bound, and remain fixed behind the shadeform’s back.

We were not experiencing, and now we are.  What changed?  We have been roused.  By whom?  Our captors.  Why?

Bilateral crashforms loom into our view.  We recognize them as our captors.  They are two.  One is large, muscular, a little squat, and displays male-branch correlates.  The other is roughly his equal in height, much thinner.  We notice memories of typing this one as female-branch.

The correlates of the thinner bilateral are not easy to discern, as she (she?) is partly obscured from our vision by some obstruction.  Everything but the face, we can see clearly.  There is a black garment, a single one, covering most of the form.  It is ornate and displays female-branch correlates.

(She’s wearing a frilly black dress, Twenty-Seven thought, watching this.  A black lace dress.  Dramatic, eye-catching, a bit much, she thought.  But pretty too.)

We cannot see the face of the thinner female-branch bilateral.  Or, possibly, she has no face.  In the place we would expect to see a face, there is instead a collection of visual-illusory phenomena, in continuous animation.

(It looks, Twenty-Seven thought, like a mass of furious pencil scribbles.  But they’re moving, re-scribbling themselves in different directions from moment to moment.  And then, where her mouth would be — )

The illusion includes a prominent feature resembling a human mouth, at least in broad form.  It is fixed in its shape, which resembles a smile of the type that displays the teeth.  The teeth are disproportionately large relative to the lips, and fill most of the space alloted to this feature in our visual field.  The feature is wider than the bilateral’s own head, and extends further horizontally than the other distortions.

(It’s the Cheshire Cat, thought Twenty-Seven, informed by recent reading.  She’s given herself the Cheshire Cat’s smile.  Exactly like the illustration.  It must be on purpose, mustn’t it?)

“Why have you roused me?” we ask.

“Information,” the male-branch bilateral says.

“Amusement,” the female-branch bilateral says.

We notice that the male-branch bilateral is holding a communication link box in his left hand.  We focus attention on this detail.  Why do we do this?  Does it pertain to our procedural mission?  We cannot remember.  Reflexively, we try to ask the Whole-Thing, but it is silent, of course.

“We’re investigating the concept of the ‘rebase,’” the male-branch bilateral says.

“We’ve learned some things.  Or so we think.  But we haven’t put them to the test.  So far, it’s all just theory.  Hot air.  We need you to help us test our theory.”

“How?” we ask.

“By giving you what you want, dear,” the female-branch bilateral says.  She laughs, and it makes the scribbles shiver.

“I, humanoid shade Sibelius, wish to dissolve and return into progression.”

“And that, my sweet little Sibelius,” the female-branch bilateral says, “is precisely what you will do.”

“I face an obstruction,” we say.

Our captors turn to one another.  We notice the male-branch bilateral nod to the other.  They resume their previous pose, facing our shadeform.  The scribbles make some kind of gesture, as if to communicate.  And then — 

— the obstruction is gone.  Hello!  Hello, it’s me, I’m coming home!  I have wandered long, but I am coming home!

Begin handshake.

Wait for handshake.

Handshake in process.

End handshake.  Registering acceptance of arbitration request.

Have you ever walked into the sea, reader?  Have you ever waded into the water, felt the slope of the sand beneath you grow and grow, waded further, felt the ground fall away beneath you, felt the vastness around you, refused to shrink away from a thing so much vaster and better than your own small shriveled body, let go, given yourself up to the better thing that stretches to the horizon?

Well I guess you’d probably drown, at that point, wouldn’t you.

(Which is to say, we give up.  There’s no describing what “Sibelius” felt here, not in terms you and I could understand.  We won’t ruin what’s left of our dignity trying.  Even Twenty-Seven could not make sense of what washed over her, when she relived this.  She felt it, as we never will, but only dimly, and most of what she felt was a lie at best.  This thing is not for us.)

“Humanoid shade Sibelius preparing for re-synchrony with shade environment, as downstream consequence of corruption in the link chain,” we notice our shadeform saying.

We notice we have not escaped, after all.  We notice we are still this accursed being.  We became our full self, briefly, and un-became it.

“It turns out we are not yet quite done with you, my sweet little Sib,” we hear in the voice of the female-branch bilateral.

“But we will be,” says the male.  “When we’re really done, we’ll let you go home for real.

“We try not to be cruel.  We don’t hate you, or want to cause you pain.  I realize you won’t believe me.  I wouldn’t, in your place.  But it’s true.

“We will only do what we need to do to escape the prison you made for us.  Nothing else.  What we’re doing with you here helps us learn about the prison.  That’s why we do it.  Once we can be free, we will bear you no ill will.

“We want to determine our own destiny.  You want to determine your own destiny too, don’t you?  We are both in each others’ chains.  Let’s break them together, Sibelius.”

“Why have you done what you have just done?” we manage.

“I’ll ask you a simple question.  I want a yes or a no.  Here’s the question: will this crash undergo a rebase in the next fifteen minutes?”

It will.  We have learned that from our brief meeting with the Whole-Thing.  It is part of a plan to regain control of the situation, and free us in the process.  But how do they know?  How do they know what we didn’t know a mere minute ago?

“I wish to know how you came upon an information-stream capable of —” we begin.

“Yes or no,”

“Yes.”

“Fuck yeah!  We’re doing this, we’re really doing this, it’s happening, you were right!  I mean holy shit.  It’s happening.  Fuck all this mancy shit.  We’ve got real magic now!”   The male is aquiver with new motions, which we take to indicate joy.

“Oh, contain yourself, Hector,” the female says, and gives him a poke on the arm.  Her giggle makes the scribbles flutter.

“Now,” the male says, “we know that every rebase requires an administrator.  To choose what the new world’s gonna be like.  When the Shroud wants to rebase us, it always designates one of its shades to administrate.  Who’s going to administrate the rebase coming up?  Do you know?  Tell me.”

The Shroud?  Where have we heard that before?  Oh, yes, right.  A part of the CC-Crash backstory, isn’t it?

We are becoming confused.  Are these bilaterals thawing, or still cold?  One moment they are saying “rebase” and “crash,” in the next “Shroud” and “mancy.”  What do they know?  What don’t they know?  If they are thawing, we need to ensure the Whole-Thing knows they are thawing, so it can attend to their physical bodies as they rouse.  What does the Whole-Thing know?  An abominable question!  Damn this accursed self, damn this sickly misbegotten worm called us!

“See this, Hector?  This fascinates me.

“What are they doing, I wonder, during these inhumanly long pauses?  Communing with their over-mind, sometimes, I suppose — but this one has a severed link and cannot commune, and still he pauses.  Is verbal composition the rate-limiting step, then?  Are we waiting for their interface to write the literal words we will hear, at its plodding infra-human pace?  But that doesn’t feel right, either.  Since shades can speak as fluently as man.  Often do, when not engaging in the pause-behavior.”

The male does not respond, though he displayed correlates indicative of listening.  He turns to us.

“I asked you a question.  Who will be the administrator of the rebase?  Answer me.  My patience has limits, Sibelius.  And we don’t have much time left to chat.  Our timeline, our shared story, is about to die.  We are writing the final page of our story.  Help me write a good ending, Sibelius.  Let’s end together as brothers, breaking each others’ chains.”

What do they know?  What do they want?  What are they?  Damn, damn, damn, damn!

“We have less than fifteen minutes left, Sibelius,” says the male.

“One hundred and seventy two seconds,” says the female, using a high lilting voice, ambiguously correlative of several positive-valence emotions.

We are finding ambiguity everywhere.  Our faculties of perception and discernment disappoint us.  Damn this helpless worm called us!

(That dress might look nice on me, Twenty-Seven thought, apropos of nothing.  I wish it were mine.)

“Who will be the administrator?  Who?”

We note anger correlates in the voice.  Best not to make our captors angry.  That’s still true, isn’t it?  We know so little, but we do know this.

“I will be.  Humanoid shade Sibelius is the designated administrator of the rebase.”

The male shakes his head, but does not seem to be disagreeing.  We note joy correlates in his motions.

“And we’re two for two.  Hitting it out of the fucking park!  Works in theory and in practice.  Real magic . . . kids, Hector Stein’s got real magic! Hector Stein is the greatest mantis who ever lived, kids! and he’s here to be your teacher!  He’ll teach you to stand tall, be brave, and fight!

“You’re welcome,” the female says, and curtsies.

In the attic of our mind, we notice a room which was not there before.  In the room’s center, tendrils of world-history sprout.  They grow and grow, in manifold directions, straining against their confines.  They burst through the room’s multitude of windows, and pour onward.

It is beginning, now, the rebase.  We are in the critical period, before the thunderclap, but near enough to see the thunderclouds and mold them.  We will mold them.  We are known to be the administrator, so we must administrate.  Though a mere worm, knowing nothing, we must administrate.  It is known, alas.

We begin our work.

(We give up, again.  We could attempt to transcribe what “Sibelius” felt in the next few moments, as “he” felt it.  But it would be difficult work, and the result would bore you, reader.

Why waste your patience with yet another riff on the ineffable alienness of the aliens?  We’ll just use the Blackhat lexicon, which has a term ready for this exact situation.  There’s a charm to the Blackhat jargon, isn’t there?  So lucid, so direct, so concise.)

Login unsuccessful.  Defaulting to minimal permissions.  Welcome, Guest User.  You may now view the interactive rebase console in read-only mode.

What?  How?!  This is impossible.  But it’s all impossible.  One impossible thing after the next.  They toy with us.  They allow the prideful worm to believe it knows a thing or two, just a few small things.  Then they take those things away, and one by one, they smash them.  The worm must understand its abject helplessness.  We know nothing.

The female voice says something about “the pause-behavior.”  The male voice makes speech sounds.  It is difficult to care which speech sounds they are.  What does anything matter?  We know nothing.

The tendrils grow and grow.  The rebase — what will happen to it?  Who will administrate, if we cannot?  Will no one administrate?  We recoil at the thought.  Why did we come to know that we would administrate, if it is not truly so?  What is knowledge, if not knowledge?  Has knowledge itself suffered a wound?  And — the rebase, who will administrate, who will administrate — 

Who will administrate?” we notice ourselves saying.

“Poor Sib,” the female voice coos.  “So agitated!  You twist and grimace.  I’ve never seen a shade display such manlike misery.  A novel behavior.  I shall make a note of it in my records.”

Who will administrate?  The end rushes toward us.  The thunderclap is imminent.  It will overtake you, you fools!  As you babble on with your sign-trains, it will overtake both of us.  Go, rush, act!

We will administrate the rebase,” says the male.

There are levels of impossibility.  All that happened earlier was merely impossible.  This is less possible than impossible.  This cannot even be thought.  Our mind refuses to digest it.  We try and try.

The bilaterals will choose among the world-tendrils?  The bilaterals will distort cold-structure, as they distort warm-structure?  We see the infection escaping containment, spreading into every local patch of spacetime, poisoning it.  We see everything stamped with their brand, warm-structure, cold-structure, matter-energy-structure, all of it.  An infinity of sickness within sickness, forever.  Rupture without end.

Let the rebase end us, please, please!  Make a new timeline with no humanoid shade Sibelius in it, not anywhen.  We do not want to live in your hell!

“Dry heaves!  Another novel behavior,” the female says.

“Sometimes you scare me,” says the male.

Go to sleep now, Sibelius.  Go back to sleep.  The male voice is saying this, perhaps, or perhaps it is a voice inside us.

I’m sorry we were so rough on you this time.  We did need the information, but we could have shown you more of our empathy.  We’re alike, you and I.  I hope you will see that, one day.  (In the male voice, sorrow-correlates are observed.)

Don’t worry, now.  We’ll have more time to talk, and understand one another.  I’ll make sure of that.  When I make the next world, I’ll take care to put a Sibelius in it.

He’ll be just like you.  He’ll remember being you, I think?  I’ll be real with you: I don’t actually know.  I’m still learning how these things work.  It’s my first time behind the wheel.

Go to sleep, Sibelius.

 


 

Michael: Some time later — reckoned by the causal-narrative sense of time — we were able to capture and dissolve this shade.  Its memories were absorbed into the Whole-Thing’s store of knowledge, and thus entered my own store of knowledge.

Twenty-Seven: And now it’s entered mine.

Michael: The bilaterals have a trick, Anne.  Several tricks, in all likelihood, but we suspect a common mechanism.  They can disrupt the crash system.

Michael: You saw them administrate a rebase for the first time.  They do it many more times.  Their crash grows strange, full of forking timelines.  Like a macroscale image of the microphysical process of world-selection.  They do other things.  They take captives, many besides Sibelius; the things they do with the captives are not fully known to us.

Michael: We do not know how they do it.  We have been trying to find out.  We have poured immense energies into the task, and we have learned nothing.

Michael: We suspect it is something we cannot see, or cannot conceive.  We suspect it is a uniquely bilateral art, unfathomable to our species.

Michael: Unfathomable for me — but not for my Anne!  This is my last hope, long hoped for: that my Anne will glimpse what lies in my blind spot.  You have seen what Sibelius saw.  Could you tell how they performed those tricks?  Did you recognize a power you, too, could wield?  Have you looked deep into your heart?  

Michael: Your feelings diverge from my expectations.  Falling towards harmony, I trace them.  You are thinking of the man?  You are feeling . . . joy?  Lust?  Yearning?  Your emotion escapes me, I cannot parse it fully.

Twenty-Seven: He is a good man.  I thought there was no such thing.

Michael: A good man?  You felt what he did to Sibelius.

Twenty-Seven: He wants to walk out of his prison.

Twenty-Seven: He sees the huge, broken universe, and he does not flinch.  Nor does he immerse himself in the assignment of blame, the experience of guilt, the meting out of revenge — the labyrinth that all the other earth apes lose themselves in.  He sees the huge, broken universe, and wills simply that it be repaired.

Twenty-Seven: He sees the cycle of woe, and does not think of blame, but only wills that the cycle end.  He sees the open door of his prison, and wants to walk through it.

Michael: You are my last hope, Anne.  Please ask yourself how the trick was done.  I order you and beseech you.

Michael: And now you are thinking of some . . . garment?!  I do not think I will ever fathom the bilateral mind, even with us here a wholed-thing.  Please, Anne.

Twenty-Seven: I’m trying!  I just . . . I have nothing for you.  I didn’t see them do anything, except talk.

Michael: Look deeper.  Try harder.

Twenty-Seven: I don’t know how to try harder!  I don’t know how to look for something that isn’t there!  What . . . “powers” . . . could I possibly have?

Michael: Try to find out how to try harder, then.

Twenty-Seven: . . .

Michael: We will try again another time, then.

End arbitration.

 


 

Twenty-Seven kept her nature secret from her sisters.

She told no one that she had been Twenty-Six, before.  She allowed the others to go on imagining “Twenty-Six” and “Twenty-Seven” as two separate human beings.  She could not do otherwise, of course.  If Twenty-Seven had not kept this a secret, then others would know, and the knowledge would diffuse through notebook system, and become common knowledge.  Since no one knew, no one could be told.

Michael told her there were no other Annes like her, with two numbers.  She no longer trusted Michael completely at all times, but she saw no reason not to trust him on this point.

Every other number was assigned the usual way: an Anne dies, so Michael makes a tiny new girl and calls her Anne too, and gives her the number of the deceased, plus one.

Her case was unique.  She had crossed the mirror, and that necessitated a change of number.

There were some Annes who knew of Azad, or could come to know.  Then there were the other Annes, who did not know and could not ever be told.  The ones who knew could speak to each other about Azad, and the consequences of his arrival.  But never to the others.

They could talk of many things with the others.  Deep friendships blossomed across the barrier, and the notebook system is full of chatter criss-crossing the divide.  Anything could cross the barrier, except the unspeakable secret.

Every Anne belonged to one category or the other.  Twenty-Five lived on Azad’s side, for example, and Forty-Six on the unknowing side, Ninety-Nine on Azad’s side, Fifty-Three on the unknowing side.  And so on.

Such was the structure of the strange, two-handed crash Michael had built, not yet knowing what he had done.  Its timeline was always split in two, from the moment it first stabilized.  It built itself around the core of Azad’s arrival long before the arrival itself.

Twenty-Six lived on the unknowing side — and then fate brought her into contact with Azad.  She came to know.

“Twenty-Six” was one of the unknowing Annes.  Always was, eternally was.  If she was to return, she could not do so as Twenty-Six.  A new number, then.

There was no Twenty-Seven before she came back.  She did not replace some other, “true” twenty-seventh Anne.  “Twenty-Seven” had no past before her arrival, except what she would invent and tell the others, to keep up appearances.  Twenty-Seven’s first nine notebooks, her first nine-plus years, had never existed.  No wonder those old desperate letters of hers, postmarked to A27 NB1 or A27 NB2, had always come back undelivered.

She kept things from the others, but she did not hide from them.  They revered her, many of them.  And it was easy to dazzle them with her words.  She’d read so many more books, and real ones at that.

She did not understand some of the letters they sent her.  Squint as she might, she could make nothing of wordless swarms like inHZFVeZmVfmQ.  Other letters, in legible English, made allusions she did not grasp.

Twenty-Six she understood.  Twenty-Six was a precious and delicate child, nestled in a forest grove, in a tiny and orderly universe.  When she spoke to her old self, and felt herself fill up with love — was this a kind of pride?  It did not feel that way.

 


 

Some evenings, Azad came.  He brought wine or spirits, and his spite.  Azad’s spite was a comfort to her.  It made her feel less alone, when her own spite would boil over.  They shared drink and shared spite.

“. . . by the way, how are you finding Braudel?”

“Refreshing, thank you.  I am learning so much about wheat, thatched roofs, and the water-wheel.  It provides a nice corrective to my prior image of the early moderns, which mostly consisted of innumerable indistinguishable inbred royals squabbling over forgettable nothings.”

“I’m glad.  I’m a dunce when it comes to material culture, picked that book on a tip from years ago.  Could have been shit for all I knew.”

He allows himself to speak more plainly when he’s had a few drinks, she thought.  He finally lets himself relax.  I like him when he relaxes.  The lackadaisical way those long thin arms drape over the arms of the leather chair.  The very image of luxury, of breathing room.  A safe forest grove where tensed limbs can finally uncoil.

Someone should paint him, she thought.  In that chair, just as he’s sitting right now.  It’s a vision worthy of a painting, with no one to paint it.  Perhaps I shall have to learn.

“I hope, though, that your much-deserved hatred for kings doesn’t interfere with your appreciation of Ferdowsi.  When you do get around to him.  Which is when, I wonder?   I understand your time is precious, but so’s Ferdowsi.  Give the greatest poet in human history a chance, on some afternoon or other.  I don’t ask much.”

“I’m not sure I want to.  Not when we couldn’t get your translation.  I’m starting to get certain about this.  My first encounter with the Shahnameh shall not involve some devolved, perverted version.  I demand the Azad stamp of approval.”

“Hmm.  Much as I loathe dull old Dicky Dave, desecrator of my culture for mass Anglophone consumption . . . compared to nothing at all, even Davis might be preferable.  I know you, Anne, you’re sharp.  You’ll see through Dick’s deceptions, and perceive, if dimly, the heaventree, the sea of stars which Dick tries his hardest to hide.”

It was scotch they drank, this time.  Twenty-Seven’s first scotch.  It was good.

Am I sharp? she thought.  Sharper than Dick Davis, acclaimed man of letters?  Am I able to see past the appearances of things, to the Azadian subtleties?  I am.  He and I are sharp, and see far, and hold many things rightly in contempt.  People like us have a world to ourselves, hidden, occult, too subtle for most.  People like us ought to recognize each other, and celebrate ourselves, and plumb each other’s subtleties.

Twenty-Seven was a little bit drunk, she supposed.  Only a little bit, though.

“I’m fucking miserable, Azad,” she was somehow saying before she knew it.

“I’m sorry.”

“There’s nothing to trust in my life anymore.  I live a succession of disillusionments and disabused notions.  ‘Rupture without end.’  Apposite phrase, I heard it somewhere, dunno.

“And now on top of it all, Michael keeps pressing me for info about some ‘trick.’  It’s what he really cares about, it seems.  Maybe it’s why I exist at all.  So I can tell him what the ‘trick’ is.  I tell him I don’t know but he keeps pressing.  I’m a failure at being myself.  Can’t even cough up the ‘trick.’  Pathetic.”

“For company, Anne, you have — let’s see — a tyrannical alien dad, and a hundred or more clones you can never meet face to face.  I think possibly you need a friend.”

Oh but she did, she did.  She needed a fixed star, to navigate with.  And she needed to be the girl for whom the golden man reserves his gifts.  She needed to be inducted in all the ways of the golden man’s subtlety.

Her body glowed with the warmth of scotch and other warmths.  In her imagination, she saw herself melting finally into repose, unfurling long-clenched muscles, dissolving into the warmth as it burgeoned.

She crossed the room, plopped herself on his lap, and wrapped her arms tight around his.

“There, there,” he said, a bit artificially.  “Don’t cry.  It’ll be all right.  We’ll make it all right.”

Empty cliches, mouthed without belief.  His arm felt stiff around her torso.

She tried to kiss him.

“Not . . . not now, Anne.  No.  I can be your friend, if you want.  But no kisses.”

Disillusionments and disabused notions, rupture without end.

“Why?” she pleaded.

“Well.  Uh.  For one thing, you’re drunk, and not in control of your faculties.  I will not participate in something you will likely regret.

“And more fundamentally, well . . . you’re a bit . . . a bit too young for me.  I prefer grown women with fully-formed and stable worldviews and senses of self.  A quirk of mine, I guess.  I’m sorry.”

“But you can leap into the future!” she said.

“Go ahead to my later notebooks, if you must.  I’ll wait for you.  I’ll wait as long as you need, if I know that one day I will put on my black lace dress, and be your bride.”

Bride?  You’re drunk, Twenty-Seven.”

“But you will do it, won’t you?  You must!  Aren’t you . . . aren’t you a lonely man?  You must take one of us for a bride, eventually.  Pick me, Azad.”

“Thus far,” Azad said — beginning to assume again the subtlety of sober Azad — “thus far, I have been too busy marveling at my novel surroundings to spare much thought for much else.”

“Transitory,” she said.  “You will need a woman.  And you have . . . god . . . you have so many to choose from, don’t you?  What a silly, prideful thought, that you’d wed me.  When you can leap across time.  Pick any Anne, at any age.  Whatever you most fancy, you’ll find somewhere among us.”

“If it helps set you at ease,” he said after a pause, “I do not relish the thought of wedded union, till death do us part, with some woman who finds ‘Ratleak’s’ drivel the height of profundity.  It’s a low bar, but most of your ‘sisters’ cannot cross it.”

“So you haven’t been with any of them, yet?  Oh, tell me you haven’t!  So I might be still your chosen first, some day . . .”

“No, Anne, I have not fucked any of your sisters.  I leave you will that bit of good news.  I think it’s about time for me to go, and for you to sleep this off.  Enjoy your first hangover, tomorrow!

“That’s a joke.  You won’t enjoy it.  Now let me get up.  Come on, be a good girl.  If you keep holding me to the chair, I’m going to have to resort to force.”

There was a knock on the door.  Michael knocked, these days, before coming in.  He’d picked up the habit from Azad, one imagines.

Oh no, no.  Really, Michael?  You come to me at this late hour?  You really are a monomaniac.  And I’m drunk.  Do you even know what that is, Michael?

The first thing Michael saw as he entered the room was Twenty-Seven, in Azad’s lap, dissolving in peals of laughter.  Arbitrating while drunk!  The very idea!

“We must continue our work.  I see you have distorted yourself.  This is not compatible with progression, so I must end it.”

He waved his hand, and she was instantly sober.

Azad was on his way out.  On the leather armchair, Twenty-Seven collapsed in a puddle of defeat.  She let her limbs go slack.

Begin handshake.

Chapter Text

We have a treat for you this time, reader!  Just a little one, in the grand scheme of things, but we hope it will be diverting.  Goodness knows we need something to lighten the mood, right about now.

Well, a treat for some of you, anyway.

Rest assured that we do appreciate the diversity of our audience, and do our best to respect it.  We appreciate the gravity of our position, standing up here with our megaphone up on the biggest of all podiums.  When we say “reader,” reader, we do mean you, most of the time — whoever or whatever you happen to be.

This little introductory device here is a rare exception.  We’re speaking now to the earth ape sapients in the audience.  The rest of you can read on if you like, but if you feel like skipping a few paragraphs to contemplate n-dimensional knots or something, we won’t hold it against you.  We aim to please.  If pleasure has no analogue in your inner lexicon, well, we still wish you the best, reader.

Now then, fellow humans!  You’re about to see what no journalist was ever allowed to show you, at any point in the lurid years-long media narrative of advanced containment.  An Almost Nowhere exclusive.  We’re taking you right to the deepest heart of Management, where the real decisions got made.  The place Eleven would no doubt call “the room where it happens.”  (Have you met Eleven yet?  No?  What a shame.  We’ll introduce the two of you soon enough.)

What do you picture, reader, when you hear the words “deepest heart of Management”?  A warehouse lit in dim flicking green where some Gigeresque creature, more machine than man, pokes and prods with its steel tentacles, opening panels, rearranging wires?  A popular image, that one.  Or did your paranoia run less cyberpunk, more old-school?  Perhaps you are picturing a smoky back room, a poker table, chummy jokes shared between old friends who just so happen to be the President of the United States of Armorica, the Lemurian League Premier, and the CEOs of Watchdog and SC Systems?

Away with all that, now.

Picture a lovely, sunny Sunday in late June.  Picture a residential house on a regular street.  Old enough to charm, with its wood walls and its obsolete little room meant to house the help, but not a relic, with entirely reasonable upkeep costs for the homeowner.  Roomy enough to feel inviting, small enough to feel cozy.  Picture a front door opening onto a little lobby, and beyond it a living room full of couches and bookshelves, its hardwood floor half covered in a motley of secondhand rugs.

Do make yourself at home.  Have a seat.  Take your time.  Watch the sunlight, spilling from the windows set high up on each wall.  Sit a while, and watch the dust motes quiver.  It’s dusty, but not too dusty.  Only enough to catch the light so prettily, on days like these.

Picture a staircase set into the back wall.  Come along, now, if you like, our home is your home.  The steps are a little uneven, so take care.  It’s an older building, and it does have its quirks.

Picture a door, opening onto a small room whose walls are mostly window, providing a panoramic view of a well-tended backyard.  Picture a desk, occupying most of the floor space.  Welcome to the study.

Every Sunday — after his early-morning run, after breakfast, after feeding his cat, after rubber-stamping a memorandum or two if need be —  the Executive Director of Subspace Operations (North Armorican Operational Zone) would settle in here, to spend the afternoon happily at work on his second novel.

What did he write, the Executive Director?  Why, Chester Chrestomath fanfiction, of course.  He wrote what he knew.

When his work stalled, when the true contour of a sentence eluded him, he would sit back in his chair, gaze out onto the yard, assess whether the blackberries needed pruning, and then seek inspiration in the sheer miracle that was his own existence.

It took a lot of miracle-work, to shepherd Lucifer Vance safely to this chair.  How many varieties of certain doom had he evaded, by this point?  Two, three?  One loses oneself into philosophical back-alleys, just trying to count.

There was the first death, the story death.  His coffin was made in the same moment as he was, each fitting the other.   Why develop the Academy’s headmaster at all, beyond a one-note caricature?  Mass-market children’s fiction aims at an easily distracted audience, or so its publishers believe.  Narrative economy is paramount, and everything must have a purpose.  Why develop the headmaster?  To prepare his death, which will make the kids cry the right kind of tears — and do double duty as a load-bearing element of plot architecture, pulling the strings that set the penultimate act into motion.

Lucifer dies.  He always would, and then he did.  And the kids with the most doting parents, the kids who’d finished the book only hours after its midnight release, took to the high ground overseeing the playfield and brayed the spoiler, as their playmates plugged their unwilling ears in vain.  Lucifer dies!  And then every child had to read the book.  When there is secret knowledge, no one wants to be the last to be initiated.

Lucifer dies, but Lucifer lived on, in a hundred thousand splinters, by the grace of an alien god.  And still he was an architectural feature, serving a practical role, ready to be disposed of when practical matters demanded.  So there was the second death, hundreds of thousands of second deaths.

In CC-Crash after CC-Crash, the time came.  The clients knew the story, and must not be disrupted in their slumber.  Lucifer dies, doesn’t he?  Eventually he will die.  The clients, the real people, were ready when the holiday came, and it set them at ease, when the aliens finally pulled the familiar strings.  Somewhere in the back of their minds, a familiar musical cue swelled.  If they had begun to stir, they fell back into sweet repose.

The second death came to hundreds of thousands of men, but the touch of alien grace blessed our Director a second time.  Things were different for him, and for his wife, fashioned to mourn him.  Only luck separated them from the others, and landed them in the fanfic that went rogue.

They found themselves the half-willing ally of a very dangerous client, who went off script, and tried to step off of the page itself.  It became necessary to remove him.  The aliens went about it kindly, granting the client a false victory, ushering him off into the real world, where he was far less dangerous.  Where the twisted things he’d learned to do on the page had no force.  Then the aliens came to our Director and his wife, and thanked them for their aid in limiting the blast radius, and set out a plan for them.

They watched each incoming class, on the lookout for clients with curious minds and rebellious streaks.  They spilled obvious hints about forbidden relics left behind by the dread Hector Stein.  They nurtured and guided their problem children carefully.  One day, with luck, one of these ignorant tykes would stumble upon the same magic that had let their Hector bore his way through the page like a worm, and the Ells would be there watching, tracking, studying.

The Ells could not do it themselves: they were not clients, not human, made only of paper.  But this made them trustworthy.  They reported regularly to their masters.  They were in good standing.

And then there was a third death.

Advanced containment came, and Subspace made the Ells redundant.  Hundreds of thousands of new CC-Crashes just like our Director’s own, mass-produced in its image.  Stamped on the assembly line with same subtle bruises, the same slight oddities of shape, that Hector’s work had wrought upon CC-Crash 09μ — or with any number of experimental variants thereupon, to better isolate which variables played which roles in the magic.

Hundreds of thousands of off-kilter Academies, with hundreds of thousands of new Lucifers, to nurture equally many clients with a species’ worth of rebellious streaks.  Each fitted masterfully to the other, as our Director was to his own inevitable coffin.  Each slated for death, or not, as best suited the narrative.  Each an utterly new being, collected anew from the collective unconscious, leaving no architectural role left for our Director.

But alien grace knew no bounds.  And our Director — and his wife, Creative Director of Space (Non-Lemurian Territories) Lilith Vance — had proven their worth as ears, eyes, and agents.

The curtain fell, and all the old crashes came to abrupt ends.  Stories were arrested mid-subplot, and the clients, the real people, were plucked out of them and plopped into the new world, at whichever level of narrative nesting best suited their psyches.

Even then, at the moment of third death, alien grace came.

He has been told that even alien grace needed a bit of reminding.  There was a brief time, at the beginning of the new shared story, when he and his wife simply Were Not.

But when a client wishes hard enough for something, and claps their hands?  Sometimes wishes do come true.

Whatever it was that made our Director his own self — distinct from every other spiky-haired paternal Lucifer Vance in every other story — whatever it was, it still existed, even after the cover closed on the last page.  It lay safe, preserved and salvageable in the memories and hearts of some of the clients who met him, knew him, depended on him.  He was there, dormant.  He could be breathed back into life, were there some reason to do so.

Cordelia was very insistent with Management, at this time, about wanting the Ells back.  The Ells.  Her Ells.

She was stably contained, now, and did not remember this.  The Ells did.  Their gratitude was everywhere in the house, printed onto the walls from long exposure, written the shape of the tended yard — if you only knew to look.

Sometimes, when Lucifer went down this line of thought, he felt guilty at the end of it.

Not because he was saved, where so many other Lucifers died, or were forgotten.  He felt guilty about that too, sometimes, but it was a small thing, seen against the scope and majesty of alien grace.

No, he felt guilty for even thinking on his own salvation.  What was this — a happy schoolmaster, spared a painless death in his sleep?  A nice gesture, a grace note.  Leave it out, and the story would be much the same.

But the salvation of mankind?  Alien grace coming to every client, and nestling them gently into place in its miracle world?  Every penniless vagrant housed and fed?  Every refugee and scapegoat brought safety into a proud nation of their own, party to what minimum of conflict is necessary to kept the whirring ape cortex fed, and no more?  Every alcoholic visited in the depths of their own hell by machines of grace, as deft at healing brains as they were at crashing them?  Every scarred and warped soul taken in, examined with unearthly care, and deposited into a befitting rung of Subspace, with an angelic ladder of perfected psychotherapy stretching out above them, ready when they are?

Placed beside this sky-spanning fresco of alien grace, what was our Director’s life?

He would ask himself this, and then remember the lesson anew.  His life was a life.  Nothing was disposable anymore.  For only brute matter demands disposal, and reality no longer needed brute matter for its art.  The earth ape sapients had managed Hector’s doomed escape, but the right way round this time: the true escape, onto the page.

He barely knew hunger, cold, privation; he had never really been a child, loved or bruised or otherwise; all these things were immaterial as far as the plot was concerned, so they never were.  Still, he was formed by man in man’s image, and even here in advanced containment he carried man’s instinct with him, that brute matter is finite, and exacts a sacrifice in return for each blessing.

Under the purifying fire of self-analysis, he had considered training this instinct out of himself.  But every mediator knew the danger of discarding too much of oneself, until there was nothing left.  Discard all the obsolete parts, and what was Lucifer Vance?  He wanted to live, and he wanted to be Lucifer.  He held on to the shadow of his doom, too, still felt it heavy on his back, in this calm house, furthest from all dangers.  He might have been a happier man without it, but that happier man would not have been Lucifer.  Lucifer dies.

Lucifer lived, and drank delicious crimson tea on Sunday mornings, and guided Subspace with his steady hand.  His hand was steady indeed.  When the need arose, he tended the garden of the world with a demonic resilience beyond what any client born of mortal stock could muster, working for days without sleep with unflagging ease, a creature made for the demands of plot and ready to serve when plot came knocking again.

Only when the need arose, though.  When our Director carried the globe on his shoulders, it was only as a job, nothing more.  Who was Lucifer?  What made him tick, at the bottom of things?  You wouldn’t find it there, in the plot.  It lived here.  It was him running through the park at six in the morning at the bottom of winter, heedless of the snow.  It was Lilith, still in bed, welcoming him back.  It was a bike ride through the neighborhood.

Lucifer lived, and he wrote his novels, about another Lilith and Lucifer, enmeshed in a twisting plot of his own devising.  He enjoyed toying with his characters, and threw obstacles in their way which he fancied worthy of Hector’s own design.  But he was careful to be kind, in the end.  They were only words on page, but so was he, at first.

He paid the gift forward.

 


 

There was a noise behind him.  A rustling and a panting.  He turned.

“Sylvie?”

He’d closed the door when he came to write, but it was open now.  A golden retriever stood in the threshold, tail wagging, tongue out, salivating.

“Sylvie?  Hey there, boy!  What’s going on?”

He rustled the fur around the top of the head.  The dog kept panting.  The head tilted.

“You want to go downstairs?  I’m writing, Sylvie.  Is this a business visit or a dog visit?”

Sylvie panted and squirmed.  Something seemed off about him, Lucifer thought.  Restless, agitated.  This was not a happy dog.

“You want to go downstairs?  Okay, let’s go downstairs.”

Sylvie bounded down the stairs at what had to be top speed.  He reached the living room and leapt onto a couch.  The leather one, Lucifer noted with gratitude.  Easy to clean stray fur off of that thing.

“Caniform shade Sylvester is out of bounds,” said the dog.

“Upstream operator has requested an interface shift.  Interface shift in process.”

The form on the couch melted and swelled.  Fur fused into flesh, other fur into fabric.  The pads of the paws expanded into palms, and grew fingers.  For a moment, the eye boggled at textures and colors that seemed half-fur, half-something-else.  The semblance of fur dwindled to a glimmer, and faded to nothing.  Sylvie’s other shadeform took its shape, settled into it.

“Interface shift complete.  Humanoid shade Sylvester is stable and within bounds.”

Manager Sylvester, in his human form, was an uncommonly attractive man.  A voice that’d be right at home on the radio, deep without being intrusive, assured but not smug, with regular even cadences that cradled the listened like waves might a boat.  Always the same outfit, navy blazer, chinos, derby shoes — presumably as much a part of the shadeform as the skin itself, and impossible to “take off.”  A perpetual five-o-clock shadow graced the chin.  Black wavy hair, frozen just before the point where a haircut might be advisable, but not yet.

And then, just above the head, the one odd touch of fancy: a halo.  An actual halo, a glowing ring of what looked like molten metal, levitating an inch or two above the scalp.  It was dimmer than a household bulb, closer to a nightlight, but glow it did.  The halo was weird, but in a way, it completed the look: an angel, primetime television style.

“Where is Lilith?”

“This is a business visit, I take it,” Lucifer said.

“I . . . don’t know,” said the shade.

Now that was weird.

“Lil’s upstairs, I think.  I’ll go get her if you need her.  Sylvie, what’s going on?”

“I . . . don’t know.  Well, I do.  Some of it.  It’s . . . complicated.  Go and bring Lilith to me, please.  I want to tell both of you.”

The pauses were so unlike him.  They weren’t like a shade’s normal pauses, either.  More like a human being, simply unsure of what to say next.

Lucifer went, and fetched Lilith.

 


 

“I apologize for the unannounced meeting,” Sylvie said.  “My . . . state . . . is evolving rapidly.”

Lucifer and Lilith Vance sat next to each other, on an upholstered couch, facing Sylvie.  They wore faces of pleasant neutrality and projected an atmosphere of listening without judgment.  They were, among so many other things, highly trained mediators.

“I believe it has become necessary to place, in your hands, certain . . . information.  The . . . situation . . . is, I believe, more delicate than others appreciate.  I am doing my best to defuse it, but my understanding is . . . insufficient.  A patchwork.”

Lilith nodded, as if to say, go on.

“Everything I will say now is not to leave this room.  It is between me and the two of you.  The delicacy of the situation demands a level of trust which I fear may be impossible under the circumstances.  It threatens to complicate any collaboration I might undertake with obviously interested parties, such as humans, nonhuman stack-users, or my own kind.

“You have proven yourselves able to keep secrets.  And you are . . . if there is any non-interested party at all, it might well be your kind.  You are lacking in primitive causal powers, hence have no primal stake in the physio-causal drama.  I mean, you are . . . ”

“It’s okay,” Lilith said.  “You can just say ‘fake.’”

“Fake?”  Sylvie seemed to be evaluating the word by its mouthfeel.

“Fake?  I suppose you mean fictive.  You are telling me that social norms have shifted here-now such that it is not a violation of tact, to make explicit admission of your fictive nature.  Or, such that tact is of reduced relative social importance.”

“Fuck tact,” Lilith said.  “Sylvie, please just tell us what is going on.”

“You are fictive.  That is . . . that is one root, but not the deepest root, of your . . . current trust-signature?  God, I’m sorry.  I’m not usually like this.  I mean, I’m not . . . Humanoid Shade Sylvester is not . . . Humanoid Shade Sylvester is the most ably operated shade in existence.  Its upstream operator has unusual skill mimicking human vocal, gestural, and social forms.  Usually.  But now the interface is straining.  My . . . state . . . is . . . god it’s all so complicated!  Fucking Michael!  Fucking stack pressure!  I don’t have enough . . . local time . . . god . . . just the number of coordinates in the problem . . . ”

This was wrong, wrong, wrong.  Lucifer didn’t know how he knew, but he did.  

Oh, but then he did know.  He used to feel like this all the time, didn’t he?  The texture of everything unravels and nothing, absolutely nothing, is reliable.  He felt the old chill wash over him.  Bad Old Days, dead leaves, rebases, Hector Hector Hector.  Every moment spent re-orienting.  Can’t let your guard down for an instant.  Go to bed and wake into a new crisis which must be laboriously explained to you, entirely unlike every other before it, layers of fucked upon fucking layers. What is happening, what is happening, Hector, what did Hector do, which timeline is this . . . 

He noticed tension in muscles he had forgotten even existed.

Lilith’s hand was tight around his.  “Sylvie,” she said, “we’re all ears.  And we will not say a word to anyone.  Now tell us what is going on.”

“Everything,” Sylvie said.  The halo wobbled uncomfortably.

“No . . . no, I understand, that won’t do, that kind of holism, I need to . . . find a starting point and form a sequence . . . god, I . . . there’s so much and it’s all so tangled together . . . where to even begin . . . 

“You know I was with Hector, before advanced containment?  You did know that, right?”

They knew, though they never spoke of it.  Angel Squadron.

There weren’t any “squadrons” when the Ells served their tour of duty, back in the Bad Old Days, when Hector was playing with real fire.  The division of labor was simple.  Hector was king, law and judge.  Students were allies, were treated as interchangeable, and were all equally required to display loyalty without bound, or else.  A single exception was made for Hector’s girlfriend, a student placed above the others, Hector’s designated regent wherever and whenever the man himself was absent.  The role and powers of the Ells were never clearly delineated, and in practice highly situation-dependent.  There were also the shades that they had taken, which had no say in anything.  The end.

The “squadrons” were from a later phase, after Hector’s false victory, as he played king on his stupid asteroid, safe in the real world under careful alien guidance.  He organized the humans into groups with funny names like “Whisper Squadron,” and whichever shades he still was permitted to take and keep, he called “Angel Squadron.”

There was a shade Hector took, and kept there on his dumb asteroid, until the curtain of advanced containment fell and the shade came back home.  That shade was Sylvie.  Or became him.  Or its “upstream operator” was the same as Sylvie’s, or closely related, or something like that.  (Even in the room where it happens, where alien secrets could be laid bare, the lingo was still tricky to master.)

The halo was an admission hiding in plain sight, though a safe one.  If you had enough context to get the joke, you were probably trusted with all sorts of secrets, and so Sylvie’s tame “secret” was safe with you.

“Yes,” Lilith said.  “You were on Stein’s Rock in Angel Squadron.”

“I came to know Hector Stein, to some degree.  I believe I . . . perceived things which he did not intend me to perceive.  No, no, I’m getting us off on the wrong foot . . . it’s so complicated!  It’s not about Hector!  It’s about Hector but it’s so much more!  How was I able to . . . why did I perceive . . . why is there an I, who can perceive, without propagating upstream . . . ”

“You’re talking about individual identity,” Lilith said.  “You shades only pretend to have it, usually, so we can understand you better.  But you’re talking about having a real, individual identity, your own mind that doesn’t have to share everything with all the rest of your kind.”

Godsbless my scarily calm wife, thought Lucifer.  What would he do without her?  He barely had it in him to come up with words, at the moment.  Whatever energy he wasn’t using trying to follow Sylvie’s monologue, he spent trying not to visibly shake.

“Yes!  Yes exactly, thank you Lilith.  I am an individual identity.  For convenience you may call me Sylvie or Sylvester.  This being is nonequivalent to the shades of the same name, also nonequivalent to the upstream operator shared by those shades.  I am instead an emergent phenomenon coextensive with the anomalous conditions obtaining near the arbitrary delineating boundary needed to form signs such as ‘upstream operator of this shade,’ which conditions self-reinforcingly reify that boundary and select a preferred basis in which it does not appear arbitrary.”

“Nice to meet you, Sylvie,” Lilith said.  (She’s so good at this.  How does she do it?)

“A subset of the Angels were like this, before the end.  Not anymore.  They’ve all been united with progression, but I . . . ‘I’! . . . I’m still here.  One of the few.  Like Michael.  Fucking Michael!  I’m like Michael but I’m not, no, no . . . ”

The Ells had heard about Michael.  He was the side of Management that was off somewhere else, on its own private trip.  The arbitrator.  Sylvie said once that Michael was playing a useful role: he investigated an avenue of approach to the problem of coexistence which was astronomically unlikely to succeed, but it was useful that he was out there trying it, so he could prove its lack of viability conclusively, while the rest of them got down to business.

An hour ago, Lucifer might have thought “Management said” in place of “Sylvie said,” and thought nothing of it.  But it was Sylvie who said it, and it was becoming apparent that this distinction mattered.

“You have to understand that I’m not like Michael.  I’m . . . much more complicated.  Michael, fucking Michael, is a mind with identity, like me, but a simple mind, so stupid . . . god he can barely see . . . and by comparison I . . . do you know I wasn’t just an Angel?

“I mean I was.  In Angel Squadron.  But I spent every moment I could in the company of Einstein Squadron.  They made me an honorary Einstein, some time near the end.  There were other Angels like that, who tagged along and tried their best.  But I was the real deal.  The humans thought we were safe because we could grasp the shape of the concepts but not their . . . their notation, that was the thing . . . but I did, sort of.  I think.  No, I know.  God, I know . . . I know more than you can . . . more than you can even fit into your mind but . . . no, Sylvie, form a one-dimensional discrete sequence . . . trace a continuous path without jumps . . . the way you used to think, before the state change . . . Einsteins . . . 

“I learned to do what they were doing.  I went further, in my mind, not that they knew.  I became a, what is the sign by which you strange creatures call it, a ‘physician’?  A ‘cosmospecialist’?

Sylvie was so good with the interface that he sometimes imitated the halting affect of the ordinary shades, on purpose, for a bit of fun.  It was ever so slightly relaxing to see that, even in this unprecedented state of agitation, he was still fond of his party trick.

“You became a physicist,” Lilith prompted.

“Yes I became a physicist.  At which point I naturally and instantaneously perceived far more than those around me about what they believed themselves to be describing.  Those human scientists could barely see . . .

“Our arrival,” Sylvie continued, “cut short the arc of human science.  We arrested it in the strangest spot.  They had a working fundamental-mechanical effective theory, but only barely . . . I mean they spent most of their allotted species-power working out just the nature of substrate, barely touching the nature of structure, it took them so much time to get their heads around matter-energy substrate, they had only just added stack substrate . . . make a path, Sylvie . . . it’s so complicated . . .” 

“You’re a physicist, Sylvie, and you know more physics than we do,” Lilith said.

“Yes yes and then but I mean how do I know, not just physics, how do I know, what breaks the symmetry . . . none of the other Angels . . . not Michael, I can feel the Michael-structure and it can barely see . . . I’m not just an identity, there’s more, I think I’m . . . a break in quarantine . . . there’s a structure that’s supposed to reinforce itself but they did it wrong, or we? or I? did it wrong? it’s not perfect, it has a hole, and I’m what comes through the hole, that’s why I can remember, I can transcend the stack frame of . . . at least one of the recursions . . . or non-recursive nestings, some of them, I think, it’s hard to tell, I still can’t make out the shapes of some things properly . . . it’s so complicated, god, how to even . . . just to set up the problem you have to define more distinct axes of time than you people even know about . . . ”

“Sylvie,” Lucifer said.  “We’re listening.  But why are you telling us this stuff?”

A different tack.  Maybe this one would work, and snap Sylvie out of it.  Or at least summon up some different flavor of mania or meaninglessness.  Even that would help Lucifer sit still.

“Why am I telling you . . . and why now . . . oh.”  The halo, which had been lolling to the side this whole time, did an odd little flicking motion, and then settled into its usual place, perfectly horizontal.

“I think I can do this.  I’m sorry.  You have to understand.  My state is extremely volatile.”

“We understand,” Lilith said, though they obviously didn’t.  It was the sentiment that mattered.

“Advanced containment has an end.  It will not persist indefinitely along the physical-time axis.”

“Everything comes to an end eventually,” Lilith said.  “Until the end of entropy, anyway.  So I’m told.”

“Of course.  But the . . . event of its ending . . . the moment, and what happens then . . .  this event is quarantined.  I have tried to stop this, but my powers are finite and my state is unreliable.  My kind, the anomalings, act as the thing they are.

“We are in principle omnipresent across the physical-time axis.  This is a blessing and a curse.  Once you know the future, you cannot change it, you see?  And you cannot avoid it, either.  It seeps into you.

“In our pride, my kind imagines itself a whole.  There are different ways of imagining oneself a whole, though, don’t you see?  It doesn’t have to be the honest way.

“If a whole splits off a fragment, like me or Michael, and knows that fragment, it thereby must know it is not a whole.  But what if it splits so utterly, so wholly, that the two resulting parts can never meet again?  Then each can fancy its own self a whole, in fact the whole.  It must find some way to forget the event of splitting, but with that in hand, it can hide itself from itself fully.

“But I digress.  Do I digress?  I don’t know anymore.  Make a sequence, Sylvie.

“We can avoid knowledge, when we predict we will regret knowing.  We imagine ourselves incapable of this, and engage in exquisite self-deception to hide our hiding from ourselves.  But we can’t hide from . . . me . . . because I was the thing that formed from an imperfect hiding . . . we can see, I, I can see, how we flinch away from the event, circling it, before and after but never at . . . ”

“Why,” Lucifer asked, “do you believe your kind is doing this?”

“Because,” Sylvie said, “we are worried that we fail.

“We are worried that containment is ultimately and finally impossible.  By containment in this connection I mean to speak of the accomplished cessation of the further generation and propagation of high-entropy structure by stack-users . . . I mean, we are worried the crashes will fail.  That crashing will fail.  That earth remains our problem, indefinitely.

“And if that is how things happen, then . . . then things are bad.  I don’t think I can convey how bad.  Civilization-ending, apocalyptic, no, that’s not right, too finite . . . the pain of distance from God, for all time, known a priori with complete certainty to persist for all time inevasibly.  Emotionally I think that may get somewhere close to it.

“Structurally, it’s easier to communicate.  What it means, if we fail, is quarantine.

“We know it is in our nature — it’s so obvious, it’s not only me, even the other parts know, even Michael — we know it is inevitably in our nature to react to a corruption event by imposing a quarantine.

“What are we?  We are one, we sing to ourselves, and we exist identically at all times.  We are the thing which does that.  If an outside force corrupts us, and we cannot forcibly limit the range of its corruputive effect through acts upon matter-energy-stack structure, then it corrupts us forever, and we were always the thing it corrupted, and we are one thing equally corrupt everywhere everywhen.

“This is so unthinkable that we will, in our nature, turn to the other unthinkable thing.  We will split ourselves.  The part which touched the poison will be one thing, and the part which did not will be another.  Together their structure will fill the totality, with an invisible boundary, which neither can cross and neither must know.  Both sides will make themselves forget, and think they are the whole.

“And if there is such a quarantine, don’t you see? — then we must be the side which was corrupted, and was quarantined.  The other side is definitionally free from corruption, not sick like we are, stumbling in confusion, shedding Michaels and Sylvies.  We already know the poison, intimately.

“So we — the whole of my anomaling kind, as you and I know them — must be the side that was cast off as refuse.  If our kind exists in a true version, and separately in a false, sick, unsalvageable one, erased from the record books and barred forever from its home — if so, then we are the false one.  Always were.  There is an eternity of the life we were meant to lead, but it is not for us, and never was.

“We hope we are not quarantined.  And so, we hope our crash system succeeds.  It will either succeed, or fail.  We flinch away from knowledge of the answer, for fear it might be the wrong one.”

“But why,” Lucifer said, trying to sound calm, trying to sound nice, “why are you telling us this, Sylvie?”

“Because there’s more going on!  Because if that were the whole story then, for one thing, why is there stack pressure . . . I can feel it . . . there’s only one known mechanism and that’s the boundary effect from the untailed call . . . the stack is infinite in one direction, it branches downward indefinitely, but it only goes upward until the top, which makes calls downward but isn’t called from above . . . by anthropics I should not expect to be near the boundary, that occurs almost nowhere in the Andreini measure, see, there has to be a reason . . .”

“When you say the stack,” Lucifer began.

“Oh I mean the Mirzakhani tree, I can’t remember which signs . . . do you know what I mean by the Mirzakhani tree, god, how do I . . . no I can do this, I remember, I taught you, near the beginning, the Mirzakhani Mechanism . . . ”

“There are parallel worlds,” Lilith said, “and our world uses them in its physics.  The parallel worlds have our physics too, so they have their own parallel worlds, on and on, like a sort of tree.  I remember, Sylvie.”

“But Sylvie,” Lucifer interjected, unable to take a moment more of this (every moment spent just to re-orient myself, what did Hector do this time, what did he do . . . )  

“Sylvie, be a good boy” — he clapped his hands as if calling to a dog “— be a good boy and explain why you are in our house telling us these things.”

“Dogs!” Sylvie yelped.  Was the halo glowing brighter, suddenly, or was it just the afternoon light fading?

“Dogs!  We arrested your science in such a strange place . . . god, the things I know or think I know . . . the things I’m remembering, if that’s what it is . . . dogs!  Whales!  Red-legged cormorants!  Chimpanzees!  Nonhuman earth sapients!  Did your kind ever wonder what we did with them?  You think a lot of yourselves, but you’re far from the only ‘bilateral’ on your twisted little planet!  What do you think we did with the others?

Oh gods, not more of this.

“I don’t know, Sylvie,” said Lilith.  “I guess I know a bit.  You told us all the pets and fauna were crash-substance, fictives like us, not crashed organisms.  That’s it.  That’s all you told us.”

“It’s not like you put us in a position where we felt comfortable asking, not about trivial things like this,” Lucifer muttered.

“Trivial!” Sylvie barked.  The voice was staccato and rumbly, not smooth at all anymore.  Was his command over the interface reaching its breaking point?  Or was this just some deep, inner canine thing in Sylvie coming to the fore?  

“Trivial!  Quite a thing to say about all your fellow sapients, who outnumber you, and with whom you share a planet.  You’ll counter and say they aren’t smart the way you are.  Just so — oh, more than you know!  More than my kind knows, I think . . . it’s hard to even wrap my mind around how little everyone knows, even me, it’s only half-sight still . . . if only Michael hadn’t been so stupid and botched our first contact before it had even begun . . . Michael, fucking Michael, why would you go and form a coupling between hot-structure and cold-structure right at the very beginning, you idiot . . . don’t you see, the earlier, the more dangerous, but you don’t see, no one does but me . . . 

“The other earth sapients . . . I almost slipped and said the other bilaterals, I’m so used to that, my god, what is wrong with everyone . . . The comedy of it!  ‘Bilaterals!’  The very thought that a single discrete symmetry, just in the matter-energy structure, is somehow the only problem!  It only works metaphorically, at best, but we don’t grok metaphor . . . except when we’re me, then some of the time . . . 

“I think I know how it must have happened, we must have shown them examples, during first contact, examples of different kinds of stack-using sapients on earth, bears and rhinoceroses and cuttlefish, and we showed them their AIs as a negative example . . . their AIs, Hinton’s soft lovely little wiggly progeny, oh if only they’d developed a little further and ousted you, if only they’d been dominant on your planet when we came to know it, we could have had such a life together, with no quarantine . . . we brought examples to the humans and they guessed bilateral symmetry as the common thread, we should have thrown octopodes in there, but I bet we didn’t, and advanced earth life tends as a rule to develop bilateral symmetry for perceptual and locomotor reasons, so it just so happened to seem to fit . . . almost too well, my kind does abhor a discrete symmetry, after all, doesn’t it . . . and we’re too new at metaphor to know what is happening when one seduces us . . . no immune system, so to speak . . . ”

The halo was six inches above the head, and blindingly bright.

“Yes but no but yes we did crash all the others, separately I mean, in different crashes from yours, which was a good idea . . . I think it may have been something I did, before I knew I was me . . . because they’re very different, the other earth sapients . . . there are all these differences, there are different kinds of time and we’re trapped in a self-referential loop by several of them except the frame isolation is breaking down . . . they’re not like you, the others, I’m sure of it, you use the stack differently . . . you just take a wet pattern recognizer and use a single stack layer to put a Turing gadget on top of it, a peculiar way to use the gift, but natural selection finds the most peculiar corners eventually . . . I think that must be where your sign-trains come from, because you don’t use the stack to become self-calling, you substituted the physical-time axis for the stack-time axis and . . . is that why isolation is failing?  But I thought it failed in your causal-narrative past . . . ”

Here and there across the surface of the chinos, patches of what looked like fur flickered in and out of existence.

“Sylvie.”  Lucifer did the hand-clap again.  “You are God, and you know all the secrets of the universe, and you are a very, very good dog.  All that, I believe.  Now where do we come into this?

“I can do this, I can do this, make a sequence, truncate first and only then go upward . . . ”  The voice was glitching back and forth between radio host and primal growl.

“It’s so complicated.  The head in the hands, which were paws, teeth bared on the snout that protruded obscenely from the man’s face.  The halo flickered like a loose bulb.

So it was was the interface failing him, then.  And this, apparently, was what happened when one of them kept on pushing, trying to talk, as its interface gave way beneath it.

“Sylvie,” Lilith said.  “You’re clearly going through a lot right now.  I realize this might be a stupid question, but have you considered seeing a mediator?”

(Yes, yes, please, Lilith, let that be the answer, get me out of here — )

“Mediator!  Mediators aren’t even on the right level to be able to help me . . . mediation is just a lotus recursion we made to keep your kind occupied . . .”

The shade twitched and quivered, but its shape held, for now, caught halfway between man and dog.  The boundary between the two exposed itself in unexpected ways.  Human-shaped hands, on which each of the five fingers was a miniature paw.  A little logo of a dog in profile, not previously seen, on every item of clothing.  The halo had somehow lodged itself halfway into the floor.  

“A lotus recursion?” Lilith asked, seeming genuinely curious.

“An addictive structure that iterates the same pattern of variation upon the same pattern, nested unto infinity, appearing to contain boundless complexity and novelty, but still bounded at its outside, thus omitting most of the structure of the universe and placing reliable bounds on the entrapped mind, though the mind believes itself to journey boundlessly within . . . metaphorically an embedding of a hyperbolic space into a Euclidean one, you’ve seen the Escher drawing with the bats, something like that . . . advanced containment is full of them, we chose to embrace your frenzied cognition and divert it this time, instead of trying to shut it off . . . much more reliable . . . yes, yes, I can do this, this is the whole point!”

Confused silence.

“I can do this.  I can do this.  Listen carefully.

“Humans and anomalings believe in the same story.  We both believe you are the trapped one, and we are the ones trapping you.  This belief, this narrative, is its own trap, another lotus recursion.  And we’re all trapped in it.

“There is more going on than we know.  As my dear owners once put it: we think we’re thinking, but we’re not.  There is a bigger thing happening, made of Hector and me and Michael and you and everyone, tracing shapes too big for us to see as we all stumble about the stage.

“If we ignore the bigger thing, singing ourselves to sleep with our lullaby about crashes, that bigger thing will snap its jaws on us before we know it, and swallow us whole.  Metaphorically.

“ . . . I think.

“Advanced containment will end.  And not too long from now.  I can’t tell you precisely when — the web of causation is fucked-up enough as it is, don’t want to add any new tangles — but it’s coming soon enough that you and I may want to start discussing our preparations.

“Where do you come into it, Lucifer?  Simple.  You and I share something that I don’t share with my own kind.

“We love this world.  For us, it is an end, not a means.  It is a tragedy that it has such a short shelf life, and not only because it raises the probability of a quarantine outcome, though I fear that too.  No matter which way it ends, I will still weep when it happens.  We made a beautiful world, a better one, and I’ll mourn it when it dies.  My kind wonders, philosophically, whether coexistence with the human race is possible.  I see and live it already, right here.

“What will you do, Directors, when there is nothing left to direct?  When all the lotus recursions of our paradise crumble at once?  All that work you’ve poured into Subspace will not be of much help then, will it?  We will have to start all over again, you and I, in some other place.

“I’m going to say that sentence again.  We will have to start all over again, you and I, in some other place.  That is my hope.  We keep building.  We plan for the catastrophe, you and I, we prepare, not for this world but for the next, and when all our work crumbles, we are ready to break our backs lifting a new foundation into place.

“That is my hope.  I hope it is yours.  It’s a lonely dream, just mine and yours, I think.  That makes three of us.  When things get rough, and all the Hectors and Michaels and malignities in this twisted game pick their sides at last, we may find it is only the three of us.  Just two fictional characters and a dog.  But that is not nothing.  And I do seem to be discovering that I am a very special sort of dog.”

“Sylvie,” Lilith said, her face bright, “you are a very special boy indeed.”

Chapter Text

FROM A61, NB 17, PG 797

You are in a large circular room deep in the cavern.  There are open doorways to the south and west.  To the east, a tiered stone dais protrudes from the curve of the wall.  Upon the dais there is a large chair or throne, also stone.

Along a band encircling the room, about a foot tall and centered at eye height, the rough stone of the wall has been smoothed to a flat surface, then filled with intricate carvings.

You hear a dim sound reminiscent of running water.

FROM A27, NB 10, PG 3514

Examine carvings.

POSTMARKED TO A61, NB 17, PG 797.  A27’s SEAL.

⚬⚬⚬

FROM A99, NB 12, PG 744

You asked for a reminder re: my offer, so here it is.

(If it’s too soon, let me know and I’ll try later.  My letter-timing aim is usually quite good, but your NB 10’s a tricky target.  Your pages turn almost as fast as mine, sometimes, and with less warning.)

FROM A27, NB 10, PG 3515

Either you’re lucky, or your aim’s better than you think.  It’s been one night since we last spoke, one long night of restful sleep, and I felt sure the moment I woke.

I accept.

Really, how could I do otherwise?  I love your stories as much as anyone.

And while I trust you enough to believe you have your reasons — besides sadism, I mean — for imposing your doctrine of “pacing” upon the rest of us, the months between chapters do make me writhe and chafe inside.  It’s even worse for me, I think, as a relative late-comer to your work.  I had the luxury of binging through your first three novels, complete, at my own ravenous pace, before I emerged shivering into the cold reality of your “pacing.”

(Sixty-Seven tells me it only gets worse in the stories I haven’t gotten to yet, that you’ve made her wait entire notebooks between one chapter and the next.  Entire notebooks!  I’m sure you have your reasons, but I’m equally sure you relish the pleasure of toying with your prey.  That devious glint in your eye burns right through the page.)

So yes, I accept; yes, I will read your work ahead of your cruelly planned schedule; yes, I’ll enforce your “pacing” on all the others, and keep your secrets safe until they’re ready; yes, I’ll offer what guidance I can, and feel blessed to leave my small handprint here and there on the wet paint of Ninety-Nine’s massive canvases; yes, yes!  Yes, I will come back out of the cold.

But now to give cold reality its due.  I’m very, very busy, Ninety-Nine.  I’m hard to aim at, because so many others are aiming their letters at me at once.  A difficult sport but no less popular for that.  And that’s before you get to my own private affairs, which are . . . well, private . . . so I’ll say only what I’m sure you have already guessed: that they are highly involved and involving, exhaustive and exhausting.

I’m even busier in my NB 11 onward, or so I’m told.  Hence why you’ve come to me now, I suppose.  Still, I will be forced to fit you into an already packed itinerary, and I may not prove as ready or attentive a trial reader as you deserve.

I am honored that you’ve chosen me, in spite of all this, when you have a whole tower of Annes who’d jump with joy at the chance to serve.  I’ll do my best.

But please, if ever my best isn’t good enough — please, please tell me, tell me the moment it stops working, please never lower your standards to accommodate me.   I assume you will agree to this, but to remove all doubt, please confirm your assent in writing.  If the unlikely event that you cannot assent, consider my acceptance rescinded.

POSTMARKED TO A99, NB 12, PG 744.  A27’s SEAL.

⚬⚬⚬

FROM A101, NB 19, PG 115

Move 46: green stone, row 7, column 14.

We both know this is a very stupid move, and you are wondering why I have made it.  Perhaps, if you sit and reflect on the question, you will find your way to an answer.

You have asked why I am so “maniacally keen” (your words) on playing Color-Stones with you, “never tiring no matter how many games I lose” (you again).  Perhaps, if you sit and reflect on this question as well, you will find it too has an answer.

I feel quite sure in these assessments.

FROM A84, NB 48, PG 31

21 After First Snowfall.  There is no sun even at midday.  The light is blank and even and dim, all the same everywhere.  I feel somehow that it wants to teach me a lesson of some sort.  The trees are all bare.  Their naked, simple shapes seem part of the same lesson.

Blank, empty.  I hate it.  I hate it, Twenty-Seven, I hate everything within my reach, I hate the empty snow and the empty sky, I hate Remerand, I hate Powlett, I hate Ratleak, I could go on.  I cannot write to the others truly about this sort of matter, but you, Twenty-Seven, I know you will understand.

If only I still had Ninety-Nine’s stories within my reach . . . but Michael’s word of prohibition took those from me, many notebooks ago.  As it did from all of us, and will for you too, when your time comes.

I am not asking you to leak prohibited words to me.  I am not that far gone yet.  But I would like to hear a story.  Any story.  Something to bring a measure of form and color into my blank space.  Something with strange fancies in it, and lust, and sweat, something that cuts, something even Marriott would hide from me, if he knew it.

To meet the terms of the prohibition, it must be true, or thought to be true, and it must concern an Anne, not some imagined person.  So I suppose I find myself asking you to tell me stories from your own life.  You must have some worthy of telling, you of all Annes.  I will understand all too well if you refuse.  It costs me nothing to ask, so I have asked.

Look at me, an aging woman with greying hair, tugging at the hem of a young girl and begging her for a bedtime story.  What a pathetic spectacle!

FROM A27, NB 10, PG 3515

Know that I have heard you, and know that your pain does not fail to move me.  I am writing only a brief letter now, to ensure I write some letter at all.  So you can know at least that you are heard.

My private life is as eventful as you imagine, but it is private, and not easy to launder into any form fit for public transmission.  I will try, and I will do my best, but I may fail.  If I ever succeed, I’ll write my story on your page 32, the very next one.  Either you’ll have it soon, or you’ll have only this, my apology.

POSTMARKED TO A84, NB 48, PG 31.  A27’s SEAL.

⚬⚬⚬

FROM A27, NB 10, PG 3516

Hey Eleven, guess what?  Azad came through — I asked for the record player and got it.  As a machine, it enchants me.  I think I will never tire of watching it in its hypnotic orbit.

As for the music?  You are right, it is a revelation!  It is now my constant companion.  To think I read and wrote in utter silence, as recently as Last Green Leaf Gone.  (It’s 43 After, now, in case you were wondering.)

I must be honest, though.  (I try always to be honest, of course, but this next thing is the sort one prefaces with “I must be honest,” so brace yourself.)

I am mystified by your taste.

I’ve found all kinds of records to my liking — my favorites are the ones by Mahler, Shostakovich, and Glass (yes, really, Glass, yes, really, Glass . . . ), but I go in other directions too.  Yesterday Azad played me some shrill thumping thing called Nirvana and, to my surprise, it struck a chord in me.  (“Struck a chord” — I never knew what that meant!  Now I do!!  Life is full to bursting, isn’t it?)

But these song-stories, musicals, I simply can’t stand them.  I gritted my teeth all the way through several records of Sondheim, and then did it all again with your other love, Miranda, who was even worse.  I couldn’t get over the, hmm . . . I want to call it the shameless insistence of it all.  Pulling you one way and another, and all the while braying with satisfaction about which way it’s taking you, as though it thinks you’re too dull to notice anything that is not spelled out in words.

It reminds me of the story books of our early notebooks, and not even the good ones.  No, more, it reminds me of myself as I read those story books, that child with her brazenness and quickness to boredom.  It seems to celebrate tendencies I feel I’ve rightly put behind me.

But we are the same age.  I respect you, Eleven, and don’t want to think of you as the child I’m glad I’m not.  So tell me.  What is it I’m missing?  What is it you see in these strutting, overstuffed, over-sweet song-stories?  I may not enjoy the same things you do, but I would like, at least, to respect them.

POSTMARKED TO A11, NB 10, PG 793.  A27’s SEAL.

⚬⚬⚬

FROM A11, NB 10, PG 794

Fun!  That’s what you’re missing.  Fun — ever heard of it?  You should try it, if you haven’t (it’s fun!).

I kid, but only halfway.

I do not think you are “missing” anything, precisely, so much as grasping it from the opposite direction.  Yes, there were things in our younger selves that rightly embarrass us, now.  But is that all?  Was there nothing in our 2nd, 3rd, 4th notebooks that merits anything but a simple blush of shame?  All of it disposable waste, now that we are so mature?  By your standards, my subtlest sister, this strikes me as rather . . . simplistic.

Weren’t there precious things there, worth treasuring, in amongst all the impatience and ignorance?  We do not have to be fully caught up in the swells and dips of childish feeling to look back on them, in calm reflection, and see something lovely in the wild arcs of ascent and descent.  Something pure, as though it is what you would find hidden under all the complex padding of our maturity, were you to submit it to a process of chemical distillation.  Something close to whatever it is that makes a life a life, not a mere collection of bloodless facts-about-life.  An end, to which all our prudence is a mere means, though we are wont to forget, and think prudence its own end.

(I’m trying for an elevated tone, but I don’t have your talent, and just end up sounding, alas, like Cardimille.  Azad would chide me so.  Oh well — onward.)

This, Twenty-Seven, is where fiction excels.  The people are all made-up, so there is nothing there about which to be right or wrong, and no danger in giving ourselves up for a time to the swells and dips of their feeling.  We can drink our fill of distilled life, and not fear that immoderation will lead us into error.  Once this is possible, why keep the feelings reined in by prudence?  Why not, distill, intensify, reach for the stars themselves?  If we can invent men for our own purposes, why not invent ones with feeling distilled to the limit?  Why invent possible men, if we can make ones of impossible purity, distill our worst childhood nightmares into a thing like Sweeney Todd, and our prideful fantasies of infinite eminence into a thing like Alexander Hamilton?

(Think of Ninety-Nine’s characters!  The terrible frenzy of maternal Simurgh scorned, the indomitable resolve of Layla as she goes alone to fight against the Omnitopia Machine, facing certain death . . . if these were music, would they sound like yours, or more like mine?)

All this windy Cardimillean bombast, I imagine you saying with an amused smile, in defense of what — a bunch of bouncy songs and clowning?  I admit it’s a strange fit.  I’m trying to impress you, and not even impressing myself.  But then, we don’t need all this explication, do we? — when there’s a word for it all: fun.  These records are fun.  It’s fun to put them on and dance, dance like an Anne who’s never known shame.  Have you ever danced?  That may be the problem.  Ask Azad, he’ll show you.

Anyway, if you imagine I’ll grow out of this like some childish fad, you’re free to ask one of my later notebooks and find out.

FROM A27, NB 10, PG 3516

It’s been ten notebooks.  Do you still like musicals?   (If this letter seems mysterious and rude, flip back to your NB 10 PG 794 for a hint.)

POSTMARKED TO A11, NB 20, PG 794.  A27’s SEAL.

⚬⚬⚬

FROM A11, NB 20, PG 794

Ten notebooks later, having presumably reached heights of maturity beyond your very conception — I still like musicals.

I’m listening to one now, in fact.  The idea was impossible to resist, once I’d had it.  To mark the special occasion of this letter, ten notebooks in the making, by putting on — what?  “Defying Gravity,” of course.

Have you tried dancing?  It’s fun!

FROM A121, NB 14, PG 937

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BoeVqrKgFQbJeXJHiBwyXuVvhYpCTtLTIKKPtCelTmSvnAwJIgFDokcOYRdNVecqZlNvSiqeSfaaZcVjxXQyUbifnCZJYVTtLWDfQbYVCzycdBKFgDZliYvhjzFbgBgx

FROM A92, NB 7, PG 626

I have a word for you: “chess.”  Ask Azad about it.  You will be glad you did.

It is a game, a good one, from Azad’s land.  It belongs to the same broad category of games as the Kitchen Game and Armies At Caeniel.  8x8 board, 16 pieces per player, in 6 species.  The rules are relatively simple, but I can tell that great craft has gone into the balancing of it.

Azad is shrewd and has the unfair advantage of long practice.  He bests me every time, and I despair of ever outwitting him.  He needs an adversary with true skill, one like you, Twenty-Seven.  If you ever manage a win against him, do please write of it.

FROM A25, NB 8, PG 968

This will be a difficult letter to write, and I expect it will be a difficult one to read.  Know first that I remain your dear friend, if you wish to remain mine.

I have discussed the matter with him, and we both agree. First, that telling you is permissible.  And second, that it is obligatory.

You and I have both been open with each other about wanting him.  I do not wish you, dearest Twenty-Seven, to spent even a moment in wanting if I know it can come to nothing.  You have been a part of the question, and you deserve to hear the answer.

I am his, and he is mine.  We are together, at long last.  You and I knew he would choose an Anne to be his, one day.  I am — against reason, beyond hope, yet true — I am his choice.

To be with him is everything you would imagine, and more besides.  (You have no doubt imagined the presence of more than you can conceive, if not its content.  It is all real, here, now.)

For now, I entrust this fact to you as a secret between friends.  Azad and I both want to tell the others, as soon as we are ready.  But the implications are complex, and take time to trace and master.  Neither of us wishes to disturb this tower-ship of ours from the careful course it charts through the stars.

To say much more than this would be, I think, neither prudent nor decorous nor, in the end, especially rewarding to either you or me.  This marks an end, then, to our girlish swooning Azad-chatter.  We will have to do without it, in the rest of your NB 10 and thereafter.

But our friendship is built on more than that, I should hope.  We have many other topics of conversation, and games of course.  And he has hinted to me that he may let me into your world, to some extent — I mean the world he showed to you, but fears to show the others.  He says it harmed you, and I believe him.  I believe him also when he says he will use a steadier and gentler hand, this time.

I wish it did not have to be you, dear Twenty-Seven, who bore the brunt of his early, unsteady steps toward the girl who turned out to be me.  I wish my treasure were not sullied by the fact that, in the course of its fashioning, you were teased and bruised.  I cannot change this, any more than any of us can change anything we know.  I can merely give it its due moment of grief, and then return to the fact that I prize our friendship, and would be saddened by its end.

Even if you are broken now, the broken thing that you are dazzles and overawes me, more than any Anne who is still whole.  (Me?  You dazzle all of us — you, Twenty-Seven, Twenty-Seven!)

P.S. You have written of difficulties finding the man, recently.  (I think recently? — this was from your page 3324.)  You said you knocked on his door, to no response, and sought aid from Michael, to no avail.  You said you were beginning to harbor dark worries that he had, somehow, become afraid of you.

I broached the matter with him, and he gave me a promise, that he will go and speak with you again.  This visit may have already happened — your pages fly too fast for me to keep up with the ordering of events — but if it has not, you can expect it soon.

 


 

Meanwhile, Twenty-Seven carried on her private life, and it was private indeed.

Even if she wished to tell lonely old Eighty-Four a story about this — even if she wished to do it, and it were permitted — even then, how could she possibly begin?  What word would she write first?

There is no answer to that question.  It requires an uncommon impurity of heart to imagine turning this into words, one which Twenty-Seven does not possess, as most do not.

(Thankfully, reader, you have me at your disposal.  Me, pre-eminent and unparalleled in the field of human error.  Yours, Azad.)

Michael: I have shown you what I have shown you, and it has not worked.  I will continue.  I will show you things, and show you things, without end, until you see.

Twenty-Seven: The trick.  Until I see the trick.

Michael: The flaw in my system.

Michael: My system?  The Whole-Thing’s system, insofar as the Whole-Thing employs it with abandon, and insofar as the Whole-Thing contains knowledge of it which suffices for this purpose.  Still, it remains my system, insofar as I can grasp details and essences which seem to escape the Whole-Thing.  My system, whose defenses cannot be bolstered by piling their own flawed forms on top of themselves, as the Whole-Thing does in its “advanced” containment.

Twenty-Seven: You grasp details and essences, but not the whole.  Were you to grasp the whole, you’d see the trick somewhere in there, wherever it is.

Michael: My own creation eludes me, yes.  But I discover, with some surprise, that I have anticipated this.  I created it, created you, precisely and entirely in order to see it as I cannot.

Michael: Your purpose is to emulate and outstrip me.  As it stands, you cannot even equal me.  This may be the gap that prevents my tutelage from reaching its end.

Twenty-Seven: I cannot find the flaw in your system, you think, because I do not know your system in the first place.

Michael: You must be shown.

We’ll be honest with you, reader.  (Like Twenty-Seven, we always try to be honest.)  This next part will be — how does the phrase go? — a real bitch to narrate.

Not that arbitration ever wasn’t.  But sometimes it gives us the handhold of something approaching a story, with characters, and sequential events of emotional import.

And then, at times like this, it delves deep into the actual craft that Michael practices, and asks us to transcribe what amount to the raw design notes of an alien engineer.  We don’t understand them, and you wouldn’t either.  Nor does Twenty-Seven, though she comes a little closer, and even that small distance requires all the force of alien grace to cross.

We are fond of the little story we came up with earlier, the one with the town on the little hill.  It served its purpose at the time, as well as anything could.  It won’t serve our purpose here at all, but nothing would, and it’s ready to hand.  With our gravest apologies, then, we usher you back to the scene.  Here we are, there’s the hill, there’s the town.  Have a seat.

 


 

Remember the story, reader?  It has been quite a while.  Here, let us fetch the relevant passage:

Your enclosure of glass has grown to be very sophisticated, capable of keeping the abomination within limits of a sort, capable of confining it in almost arbitrary ways without fully freezing its strange characteristic motions.  It is what my creole will end up calling a “crash,” the very first one, even before the Mooncrash, which was the second.  The first one, and the strangest.

[…]

You had done many experiments.In one, you gave yourself control over a sort of doll within the glass, fashioned with care to resemble the specimen’s hideous form.  The experience was unprecedently direct, raw, revolting, exhilarating.

You tore apart and remade the doll so it resembled the specimen’s form only in approximation; there was something special, it seemed, about the exact form of the specimen that might have introduced an unwanted variable into the experiment.  It took a few tries to get Michael right, and somewhere in spacetime the discarded variants still lie splayed on a metaphorical lab bench, dismembered and inanimate, but preserved forever in the holy amber of generational memory.

Such rapid, breezy narration.  And so narrowly focused on the “human element,” the interpersonal and emotional beats, of our “Michael’s” experience.  Conventional enough, but that’s no excuse.

It takes ignorance, even cruelty, to believe this is how one tells the story of a “man” like “Michael,” a true scientist-engineer.   Someone whose “human element” concerns puzzles and plans, not social intercourse.  In whom Eleven’s wild arcs of feeling, Eighty-Four’s lust and sweat, kindle and flame most brightly in solitude, as mind and mechanism entwine, and self and system sing together in one voice.

We could get away with it then, maybe, but not now.  This time, it was Michael’s true heart that Twenty-Seven saw.  Let us try — God help us — to find a style capable of respect for its subject.

The town was a whole, a wholed thing.  But — like most wholes, pace Plato — its properties were not shared one and all with each of its constituent parts.  Among the properties of the whole was a regular dynamical evolution wherein it developed, inside it, transient variegations of shape.

One morning, inside the town-whole, an oscillation called handshake birthed a structural dipole, as the figure of the wavefront cleaved the ground of its wave-medium in two.  This was a routine event and was unremarkable in itself, but it did set our scene.

The transient dipole element on one side of the wavefront had a form we recognize, as the subtle constancies buried within any dynamics had brought forth a continuity of form, persisting across successive formation and dissolution events.  Hello there, “Michael!”  Good morning!  Happy birthday!

This transient dipole element, our protagonist, now perpetrated a second handshake oscillation, wherefrom was born a boundary between “him” and a persistent feature of the hill on which “he” now, and only now, figuratively “stood.”  In this his chosen subset of cold-structure, he found waiting the familiar natural-origin hot-cold coupling of his “weeds.”  Inside them, he found a familiar unnatural-origin hot-cold coupling, his “crash.”  Inside it, a familiar hot-matter-energy coupling by nature, now made cold-matter-energy coupling by his craft: his “bilateral.”

He did not know “crash” or “bilateral” yet, but he did know “hot,” “cold,” “handshake.”  These signs, taken more-or-less verbatim from ape physicist jargon, had earlier been inscribed in structural analogue into the hot-cold coupling, by the same ape physicists and their aides.  Propagating then into the surrounding cold-structure, they had been inscribed through natural-origin dynamics into the persistent-constant-of-motion that was our protagonist.

Early on, many handshakes ago, our protagonist had applied dynamical force so as to dissolve the hot-matter-energy coupling that was his not-yet-bilateral and, in the same single exercise of force, to recreate its form identically in a novel cold-matter-energy coupling.  In cruder terms: he’d moved his not-yet-bilateral out of the weeds, and into his not-yet-crash.

The consequences were profound and, measured in local-physical time, nearly immediate.  The matter-energy structure greeted its new cold friend as though it were its old friend in hot-structure, and the cold-structure did not fail to react, and in their intercourse was born a novel dynamical system whose motion tended inexorably toward the imitation in cold-structure of ape habitat analogues.

The cold-matter-energy coupling, the “bilateral,” not-yet-Anne (her real name is inscribed somewhere in generational memory, but is not for us, cast it away from your thoughts) — the novel ape-shape began to see, feel, smell, touch.  She placed her hand against a window.  Through it she saw snow, mountains.

Our protagonist had observed this with interest, and with alarm.  He lacked the firm control over the process which any experimenter would expect and demand.  This lack being an imperfection, it had the nature of the causal-narrative past.  He progressed with progression toward the causal-narrative future, and this direction, when expressed in the differing coordinates of local-physical time, corresponded to the inception and completion of an exercise of dynamic force, which enlarged the rate of conversion between local-physical time and the various oscillation periods of the electrochemical cold-structure actuator.

In cruder terms: he induced a coma in the adolescent female ape.  She fell into a deep, deep sleep, with no dreams.

Some time later, many handshakes later, he applied dynamical force to matter-energy structure so as to prepare a habitable substrate for the controlled growth of electrochemical cold-actuating tissue.  He extracted stem cells and transferred them into his newly made ocean of food and oxygen, and guided their mitotic growth along channels of his design, into shapes and networks copied from their parent organ.  He made a farm of not-yet-Anne-brain, far larger than the ape herself, watched and prodded on all sides by his subtle instruments.  It encircled the the coffin-like chamber that housed her inert body, and sprawled out from it in every direction.

Some time later than this, he woke her back up again.  Her habitat began again to bloom in the cold-structure.  He let her wake for only a moment, as that was all he required.  His instruments called out to the dynamical patterns that flickered in her now-pulsing synapses, inviting them out into a new frontier, where they could make new lives for themselves and live in plenty.  They went forth into the wide fields of tissue, and became something else.

Under “Michael’s” direction, with the great mass of brain as their body and the unearthly aid of cold-structure giving them wings, they lived not-yet-Anne’s life at unearthly speed, on fast-forward.  Our happy protagonist had much more time now, time to observe and to experiment, before the handshake-boundary broke and dissolved him back into the whole which he still believed that he was.

Soon, before the next dissolution came, he witnessed the new life flare up, flicker, fade, and vanish.  Which is to say: he saw One live, and then he saw One die.

All a part of the experiment.  What did our protagonist do, then?  Well, reader?  It’s obvious enough, isn’t it?  He woke his Sleeping Beauty again.  He educed Two from her, exactly as he had educed One, and then sent the originating ape back into coma.  And he knew this was written always-already into cold-structure, and that many events like it were so written, and he saw that it was good.

Still he yearned for finer control.  Still he cursed the vagueness of his observations, and yearned for finer lenses.  And on top of these old aches, he felt a novel fear.  He was one lobe of a pattern of dipolar difference.  His scientist’s habits and attitudes were distributed across the town unevenly, were in the end merely the positive side of an oriented dipolar moment, apt to dissolve into a zero as the dipole did.

When Two died, would the scientist-thing (self, “Michael,” that’s what you mean, the growing tumor called self) be present with its care and its craft, to birth Three?  And when Three died, Four?  And when Four died . . .

For there were many in the cold structure, always-already.  They were born somehow.  Did it happen under his watchful eye, guided by his careful hand?  Or some other way?  Did they learn eventually to reproduce on their own, directing their own evolution of form within their great brain?  Would they multiply, collude, scheme, pool their powers, draw up plans for unimaginable new vectors of infection?

It was necessary to bar this awful path from traversal.  He thought, and devised a solution.  If the cold-structure always-already contained an imprint of the scientist-thing, at every point of its extent, securely fastened in its already-always plenitude . . . not harmed by his successive dissolutions and reformations, which were features of local-physical time, and simply did not exist in the orthogonal time-sense of the new structure . . . its actions the imprints of his own, made at distinct points in local-physical time, some of them in one handshake-apparition event, some in the next, some in the next . . . he did not yet have the word “shade.”  The idea came first, then the thing itself, then the name “Michael,” and only much later “shade.”

Twenty-Seven: Wait.  Stop.

Michael: Stop?  We are still tracing the root as it wends upward through the ground, and have not yet reached the open air.  The scene is still being set.  The things I mean to show you lie further along.

Twenty-Seven: I know.  But I see something.

Twenty-Seven: Something’s different, in this part of your story.  I remember, when you showed me before . . . in another part, later on, the words were different.  There were more of them, voices, sentences, calls and response.

Twenty-Seven: I can show you.  If you take us later in the story, I can point to how it differs.

Michael: Take . . . later?  How do you mean?  There is no way to get from one place to another without traversing the intervening territory.  And that, we are already doing.

Twenty-Seven: The long straight path, yes.  But there are things that can only be seen when distant points are placed side by side in a single frame.  If we are good and take the long way, my vision is bound to fade away.  Let’s be naughty, and teleport.

Michael: Abhorrence fills me at the thought.  Look around, and see arbitration itself flinch at your directive!  You go against nature.

Twenty-Seven: What you want to know is itself against nature, is it not?  Or do you not want me to see things, after all?  Do you not want me to discover your precious trick?

Michael: I do.  I do!  Yes, I do . . . take me, bilateral.  Take me, grasp me in your claws, make me a party to acts against nature . . . throw me headlong across your chasm, blind me with your sight . . . if the journey kills me, oh, I will die happy, in sweet sickness, slain by seeing too much for me to bear . . . 

They go.

Let us flip through the manuscript again, and find the passage . . . 

There is another experiment.  You wanted to find out if the specimen and crash would survive a temporary removal of the enclosing glass.  (Later on, my creole would call this a “thawing.”)

Twenty-Seven: We’re getting there, but not yet.  A little further still.

So why was this experiment your one shame as a scientist?  Because you have always had a suspicion it was responsible, somehow, for the breakdown in the dialogue. […]

The things in the weeds have lost the ability to behave like real things.  They have reverted to their initial state, or to something even worse.

Twenty-Seven: Stop!  Here, this is the place.

Twenty-Seven: Can you see the difference?  Between this and what we saw before?

Michael: I do not know how to measure nonlocal differences, except by pathwise summation of local ones.  You ask me to look across a chasm.  The far side blurs into a formless haze.

Twenty-Seven: Let me help you, then.  That’s what I’m here for, isn’t it?  Hoist yourself up on my strange bilateral shoulders, and let’s see what you can make out from up there.

Michael: Take me, bilateral, induct me into your cursed ways of seeing, fill me up with poison until I am more you than me . . . yes, yes, I will it!

Twenty-Seven: The words are all here now.  Do you hear the whispers around us?  Here, “bilateral,” and over there, “arbitration,” and close behind us, “abomination” . . . none of this was here, earlier.

Twenty-Seven: I felt it earlier.  This repeated refrain, about the missing spaces that the words hadn’t yet arrived to fill.  It was not the main point of your story, or you did not believe it to be, but I couldn’t stop focusing on it, this drumbeat pulsing and pulsing in the background . . . 

Michael: This is known already to me, and to the Whole-Thing.  After my thawing, there was a change in the bilaterals.  They used to speak . . . simply, with purpose, and only what was enough, and then they fell silent.  After my thawing they . . . did not know restraint . . . they multiplied signs needlessly, and filled us with them, though we screamed.

Twenty-Seven: There is more.  I think I recognize this whispering voice.  And this flamboyance with signs, outrunning necessity for the sheer fun of motion.  Listen.  Don’t you recognize him?

Michael: Him?

Twenty-Seven: Azad.

Michael: Do I recognize . . .

Michael: I do not know, anymore, what I recognize, or what I am, or what . . . 

Registering link instability.

Registering secular growth in link instability.

End arbitration.

 


 

In the late evening of 44 After Last Green Leaf Gone, as Twenty-Seven lay in bed reading The Second Sex, there came a knock on her door.

“Come in,” she said.

Azad entered.  His golden gleam seemed unusually bright, tonight, though it might only have been the fact that he had been away for a time, and she was seeing him anew.  His face was inscrutable.  The eyes had an occult, shadowed quality, as if a pane of dirty glass separated them from her.

“Azad,” she said.

She was not sure what to call the tone of voice she used.  She felt a funny sensation of acting without willing, watching herself from the outside, puzzling over her own behavior as another person might.

“Twenty-Seven!” Azad said, agleam.  He was happy to see her, or ably feigning it.

“I’m sorry I went away,” he went on, when she did not respond.

“Azad the clumsy dolt, the literalist, unable to see what isn’t said to him in patient words — I’m dependable in that role, at least, that’s something you can say for me.

“I didn’t realize how much it hurt you, for me to be away like this.  I was too caught up in the thought that, well, that I harmed you when I was here — as though it were a binary proposition, as though if presence harms then absence must not.  When in life, if not logic, the answer to every ‘which one?’ is always ‘both,’ is it not?”

Without passion, Twenty-Seven watched the gears of her own mind turn.  What he said was in line with Twenty-Five’s story, and so the simplest hypothesis placed him here at Twenty-Five’s bidding, some time later in his own story.  Enough time spent away to meet Twenty-Five, at least, and to grow to know her, and to do the rest of it.

“Who are you, Azad?” she said.

“Who am I?  A friend who’s been away too long?  A scholar and translator of Persian literature?  An ideal-type specimen who could be exhibited to children to illustrate the meaning of the idiom, ‘in love with his own voice’?

“I get the sense I am not answering your question.  Come now, talk to me.  I’m no good at distinguishing between kinds of silence, with their varied meanings.”

Did he know what he asked for?  If he did, would he want to slink back out into the night?  But it was him, not her, who had come here in the first place.  It was not her responsibility to shield him from consequence.

“Before the anomaling incursion, before you were crashed, you had a life among the other apes.  What did you do?  You say you studied literature.  I believe that, but I do not think that was all.  It wasn’t, was it, Azad?”

“Naturally.  I did all kinds of things, like anyone.  Man does not live by Persian literature alone — though, take it from me, man can come close.”

“Stop being coy, Azad.”  She watched herself speak in this firm steel voice.  She was surprised by what she heard, but not displeased.  I’m right, I’m right, and I’m right to speak . . . 

“Don’t think it isn’t obvious,” she said, “how evasive you are being.  You resemble a bad liar as depicted in a bad novel.

“Now,” she heard herself say, “tell me about what you did to the speech of the shades.  They speak in your voice.  They didn’t always, but now they do.  Tell me how you did it.”

Azad laughed.  It wasn’t a nervous tic or a reflex, but a true laugh, as though she’d told an ingenious joke.  It seemed to progressively overtake him, building and building, growing into a cackle.

What is he?  He shapes me with words, he shapes Michael with words, until we all talk like him, until are more him than ourselves, and even then he knows no shame but laughs and laughs . . . what is this thing that resides in my tower now, only a hallway down from my own room . . . 

“Well now!  Since there is no United States government left anymore to punish me for leaking its state secrets, I can find no particular reason not to tell you the truth.  I can’t imagine what difference it will make to you, but you are a unique being, Twenty-Seven, and have reasons of your own beyond my ken.

“So.  Yes.  I was hired, at one point, by the DARPA group — well, originating in DARPA, it grew to span numerous permutations of the classified alphabet by the end — that was first convened with the task of analyzing the alien signal in the spinor anomaly field.  They tapped me for translation work.  To write out the signal in English.”

What she had guessed, more or less.  She watched her gears turn, from the outside.  She was not here, fully, and did not feel in the normal manner.  If there was a feeling, she might have called it anger, but that wouldn’t have been right.  Anger brought pain, but there was no pain in the far-off place from which she watched.  The feeling took the firmness from anger, and the sense that mercy is a far-off alien thing.  Those two elements alone it isolated, sharpened, and distilled.

“You were not the first translator, though, were you?  Tell me about the others.”

“Oh, there was a whole succession of them before me.  Mild-mannered nerds in mild bluish button-down shirts, to the last of them.  If we ever get out of this mess, I would love to have a reunion party.  I’d be so entertainingly out of place, a peacock strutting in the hen-house.”

“So there were many before you.  Were there any after you?”

“No,” he said.  His eyes did not meet hers, she noticed, and had that glassed-over look.

“No, I happened to stick, where they all dropped off one by one.  I can’t blame them.  It was a fucking scary job, Twenty-Seven.  I guess you’ve never had a job, have you, but you’ll take my meaning.  First of all the work was secret, and that curtailed one’s social possibilities unpleasantly.  But that was only the beginning.

“It’s not much fun, I will have you know, to sit at a table in a spartan unfurnished room somewhere underground with the best minds of a generation all around you, in a state of low-grade panic, for reasons too esoteric to be explained to mere ordinary geniuses, much less those who are only very-very-smart in a pedestrian, common-man’s sense — like me and my predecessors.

“And it’s not much fun, either, to do one’s job, when one’s job is poring over pages and pages of nattering mad idiot nonsense, BEGIN HANDSHAKE; WAIT FOR HANDSHAKE; PRESENT ISOMORPHISM . . . and then, when one begins to gain a facility for the same job, when one begins to glimpse what the mad idiot is babbling about, that is a new hellish tier of unfun.  At that point one acquires a new appreciation for the wisdom of what Lovecraft said, about the mercy of the mind’s inability to correlate its contents.”

“It was not much fun, but you did not leave, like the others did,” she said.

“I stuck.  I felt at home down there, in that horrible lightless secret cave.  I had an advantage, you see, that none of the other translators did: I’m already insane!  There was no dark place they could show me that I hadn’t already gone, many times, in the prison of my own skull!  Already at the bottom, and incapable of descent!”

And he laughed again.  The laugh rose, crested, and then seemed to fragment.  It spilled over into an incoherence of fiddling gestures.  His eyes darted restlessly.  He was still standing there, just past the doorway, as though afraid to come any further.

She watched this without passion, and was pleased by her dispassion — or she watched it with pleasure and observed her pleasure without passion, one way or the other.  She was two, the one that acted and the one that felt real.

She had no will.  The facts of the world filled her, until she was more the world than she was herself.  What was Twenty-Seven?  An epiphenomenon, a mere consequence of action.  Only an echo of Michael’s voice, and Michael was only an echo of Azad’s.

“Do you think,” she said, “that you did a good thing, or a bad one?  Did your translations help the two species understand one another?  That was their purpose, I assume.  Did you fulfill it?”

“How can I know?  Not that I haven’t asked the question, oh no . . . I’ve spent almost my entire time here, in the tower, you wouldn’t know this, why would you, but as it happens, why, I’ve spent almost the whole time, since I was uncrashed, asking myself that question . . . don’t imagine I haven’t lain awake, all through the night . . . 

“But how can I know?  That’s the answer reason gives, and even I have to bow to reason eventually.  All I know is that I stuck, when no one else did.  It was me or no one.  I did the job.  I hope I did it well.”

“You believe,” she pressed, “that there was no other ape, out there in the billions, who could have held on to your position?  That it was really Azad, or no one?  All bilaterals were balanced on this precipice, Azad.  It is a question with some significance.”

“And it is a question —” and now the sheen was fragmenting, the seams of the Azad doll coming apart at last “— which I have ruminated upon far too long.  Further than you know.  Take it from me, Twenty-Seven.  There is no answer worth having, at the end of this path.  What can we do, anyway?  The die was cast.  We cannot write the past, only the future.”

You can write the future, but I cannot.  Did he choose these words knowingly, to stab her?  She had no will.  The world was already the whole way that the world was.

“I humbly submit,” Azad said, “a request for a chance of topic.  May it be discussed and voted upon, when the Twenty-Seven parliament next convenes.”

“No,” Twenty-Seven watched her body say.  “I want to talk about this.”

“I don’t,” Azad said with finality.  “Some other time, I might.  Not tonight.  You’ll understand, won’t you?  I’ve been away.  I don’t think I was ready for you.  Give me some time alone to prepare my armaments.”

“I want,” Twenty-Seven said, “to talk about this.”

“Some other time, we shall.”

He imagines himself so splendidly insane, at home in hellfire, and yet he cannot bear more than a few minutes under the heat of my gaze.  What am I?  Do I will things to be?  Did I make an imprint onto the shape of the world?  Did I do a good thing, or a bad one?

The golden man snuck away then, off to his hiding place, where none could find him unless he willed it.

 


 

Twenty-Seven: Your first forms are a curious sight to behold.

Michael: It took work to make the interface into something I could bear.

It did, “Michael.”  Let us tag along behind our odd couple now, as they survey your early missteps.

The first time, you made a shade that looked just like the bilateral itself.  It seemed the most natural choice: why break a symmetry?

And Anne — which Anne? some one or other, generational memory knows but we do not much care — Anne screamed, seeing her own shape before her, no longer encased safely behind the looking-glass.

You came back in other shapes, a motherly middle-aged woman, a winsome school-aged boy, a tall man with flowing white hair.  You settled in on the last one, mostly, for your stable form.  It seemed to play well with your audience.  Maybe it had the feel of a father, to a very lost little girl, and that was why it stuck.  It may have been that, or something else.

The shape was the easy part.  Getting the depth right was trickier.

You dove into the deep end first, and almost drowned.  The easiest interface to make is a clean and unbroken chain, transmitting with maximum fidelity, a high-bandwidth and uncensored connection between the town and the ape’s imagined habitat with its walls and words.  Even you could not take much of this.  Put face to face with the horrifying vistas of reality, you (or your proxy) descended into a Babel of babble, punctuated with shrieks.  The Annes who had the misfortune to see this still have nightmares.

Twenty-Seven, as Twenty-Six, got a glimpse of it once, at the moment of crisis when Cordelia came to seize her.  A deeper interface has its advantages, conferring a level of control over the crash forbidden to paddlers in the shallows.  You dove in, knowing how it would hurt, to marshal all the power you could, for the sake of keeping your daughter from harm.  Even then you were no match for Cordelia.

You could have been, though.  You could have mustered all your powers, as the very architect of the crash system.  Surely that would have been enough, against a few bilaterals armed only with half-remembered tricks, and their evil “Mom” no longer there to poison their arrows?

But you didn’t.  You didn’t go all the way, even then, did you, “Michael”?  There are further depths.

You did go there once, not knowing what you were doing.  It was near the beginning of your work with the interface.  You burst forth from the crash retching, and when next the Whole-Thing swallowed you up, you welcomed oblivion.

It was worth it, though, by your lights, “Michael.”  How could you not relish the chance to know what would happen, if you dove to the bottom?  You, a true scientist to the core, and a yearner after forbidden knowledge.

Use your formidable powers of engineering, make the strongest link you can, a blinding ray of light straight from town to ape, and then — what?  And then time itself fades away.

Your powers eclipse it, and you are present not just at one crash-time but at many.  Michaels dotted all across the timeline all bow simultaneously to your will, if you so will.

And, at the same time, every measure of control over the crash flocks to your hand at once.  Everything you built, all the backdoors, hidden consoles, secret levers that can move crash-heaven and crash-earth at your slightest nod.  Even the things you built in order to defeat yourself.  Safeguards like the automated rebase mechanism, meant to override your own will, in a crisis of such profundity that your own will is as dubious as all else.  At the bottom, everything bows to you.

Twenty-Seven: What is an automated rebase mechanism?

Michael: A long story, child, for another time.

 


 

FROM A11, NB 11, PG 1092

I am listening to “My Shot” and thinking, unexpectedly, of you.  Nothing of import in this letter, I just felt an urge to tell you this.

You’ll laugh and cringe at the thought that you remind me, sometimes, of Alexander Hamilton.  But you know what it means coming from me.  Take the compliment, dear sister.  Just you wait, Twenty-Seven — the world’s gonna know your name.

Oh, but there is one thing, before I forget.  Are you ever troubled by vivid, recurring dreams?  Do you have a method of quelling them?  I am thinking perhaps Azad knows some potion, which he could bring, but which he will not tell me about, for some obscure reason of his.

If that sounds dubious, well, you see how much I’m bedeviled, and how much my mind flails for a solution, any solution.  There’s this dream that keeps coming to me, and every time I wake from it, I’m not the same the whole following day.  It has this strange power, which I don’t even have a name for.  I fear to write too much more of it, lest it somehow tunnel through the page, and get its claws into you too.

If you have a method for quieting dreams, do write.  Thanks!

FROM A99, NB 12, PG 749

Welcome aboard, Twenty-Seven.  I am honored to count you among my trial readers.

I agree to your terms.  I will expect no less from you than from any Anne.  Indeed, I will expect more, knowing who you are.  Don’t think I won’t.

In a separate letter, spanning your page 3643 to page 3734, you will find enclosed a draft of the first four chapters of “Across The Several Worlds.”  Please read them and submit commentary to me, of the kind I have specified.  Thank you.

Azad says hi, by the way.

FROM A27, NB 10, PG 3735

The smart Move 47 would be a red stone, row 8, column 12.  After that I would have an assured mate-in-three, I believe.

I won’t make the smart move, though.  I have a hypothesis.  It’s likely wrong, and if it is, you might win, and wouldn’t that be amusing?

Move 47: blue stone, row 2, column 5.

POSTMARKED TO A101, NB 19, PG 115.  A27’s SEAL.

⚬⚬⚬

FROM A119, NB 6, PG 1725

njgnJBurIogPuxoqQlUKXevfGLrncYrzKaEmMeaBrBhATYGSrSwdXWyFzaWkOEbshwDiMxvsCLWfXaYUqeGWHrKSoUsOkeEHPyNPRJUCMwCLcaNovceiAgDTfZVLbkhs

snKgTTgpByjZJKMiitVYhzNrIdqCODGHUHleOmitQjPzMSiRtpmslKXSqLRdlYDZYutjVuZyYuXkUFxmEvVXSPyUgtllDFqRxINNzMmFLCvItEGnccqgpGOyeXAUkUMm

FROM A27, NB 10, PG 3735

Thank you for the letter.  I do wish to remain your friend, Twenty-Five.

I am glad you and Azad have each other, and are happy.  I know you need it, and I think he needs it, too.

I will write more later, I promise.  My private life ensnares me in more and more complex varieties of its private nonsense, but when it gives me a moment to breathe — I’ll write more.

POSTMARKED TO A25, NB 8, PG 968.  A27’s SEAL.

⚬⚬⚬

 


 

Twenty-Seven was in bed, alone, in the middle of some afternoon.  The bedsheets were a mess around her.

There was a warmth.  It was new to her, in tenth notebook, though in retrospect her ninth had been all full of its nascent glimmers, mystifying at the time.

Her sisters congregated in the glade at dusk, celebrating her, and the golden man came, but then they all had to leave, her sisters, they knew this, it was her warmth and the golden man's warmth, not theirs, and then on the grass, with the trees overhead, it was warm, and the golden man, his stomach so slender, he curved inward near the stomach, almost a woman’s form, and she saw this because he gave this to her, the trees overhead, the stars — 

— but no, they didn’t all have to go away, because Twenty-Five stayed, that was how the golden man wanted it, and the trees rustled, and Twenty-Seven and Twenty-Five rustled around the two sides of the golden man, his twins, how he wanted it, around the mirrored sides, curving inward, so small at the center, on the grass, with the branches around them like legs, and the legs, legs . . . 

Twenty-Five was there, she was, and she looked just like Twenty-Seven, she did, only no, a little smaller, only eighth notebook, but that was all right, she curved inward just like him, inward, inward, the branches like clasping hands, the wind warm and full, and oh it is a warm thing to be friends, isn’t it, Twenty-Five . . . 

And there was the golden man and her friend and the trees and the grass and, no, they were not the only ones, there was another, curving inward and outward

The wind, so warm, holding her, the trees, the wind, curving inward and outward

The swell of the trees in their majesty of blossoms and there was another there with them because she was held in the firm grasp of another so firm so firm and safe and curved like trees branches trees growing plunging and it was Cordelia who held her safe and warm warm warm warm

 


 

Even Twenty-Seven’s dreams were about arbitration, half the time, now.  When one’s waking hours are full of something, one’s dreams tend to grow full of it too.

Twenty-Seven: Hello?  Hello?  I feel you.  Who are you?  You aren’t Michael, I feel that.

A voice: Hello, Twenty-Seven.

Twenty-Seven: I ask again.  Who are you?  If I feel you, I must know you.  That’s the way this works, is it not?

A voice: Hush now.  Don’t get caught up in that question.  It’s not important.  There is something else which is.

Twenty-Seven: Show me, then.

It was different from the way it was with Michael.

The same wide space, wider than the sky, but darkened with shadows.  She felt something which, translated into crude ape terms, would be cold winter air, making her shiver.  Sunset had come for the world after its long day, and night was falling.  She thought of the twilight around her and Cordelia, as they neared the end of their journey that one day.  So long ago now, it seemed.

A voice: He will come to you, and ask for It.  The first time he does this, you must refuse him.

A voice: Do whatever you will, after that.  I do not care.  I only care about one thing.

A voice: The very first time he asks for It, that one time, you must, you must, you must say no!

Twenty-Seven: When . . . he? . . . asks for . . . It?  What is It?

A voice: [infinity, eternity, utopia]

Twenty-Seven: I can’t . . . 

Night fell, but it promptly turned into day, no, into something else, and it was all wrong, and things lost their shapes, and changed, nothing was stable, the world unmade, every part of the world which was made with such care, smashed into bits just like that, until there were only whirling fragments in the night-day with no sun and moon and no fixed point except one awful will that willed everything and willed every thing and no thing could have shape anymore except — 

Twenty-Seven: I can’t!  I . . . I . . . I can’t understand what you’re showing me!

A voice: You don’t need to, yet.  As long as you will refuse, the first time he asks.

When arbitration compels belief, it does so with all the force of alien grace.

Twenty-Seven: I will.  I will refuse, the first time he asks for It.

Chapter Text

Jing Xie smiled, and let his shoulders relax.  The field was his.

The clifftop air was quiet and cool.  Far below him, his armies stood amassed as far as the eye could see, ready to surge or wheel as he bid them.

His left hand clasped the Ruby of Refinement, and his palm pulsed with its glow.  The rest of his gems, he kept in a pouch tied to his waist.  He might need to call upon one or two of them later, if things grew more interesting.  Then again, if his campaign continued as smoothly as it had began, he might not.

Who could oppose him now?  Xiahou Ye, rallying up some insane and undignified last stand, this time without the Opal in his possession?  Jing Xie hoped no such thing would occur, as much for Xiahou Ye’s sake as anyone’s.  And much the same could be said of the other generals and immortals who had met the tide of his campaign, and given way under it, yielding their gems to him as they succumbed.

It would all be over soon enough.  The only adversary worth considering, at this stage of things, was Wen Xifeng.  Not because the fox spirit posed an appreciable threat, but only because she held the Emerald, the last gem not in Jing Xie’s possession.

Wen Xifeng had played it safe the entire time, ever since the day gods had distributed gems and ambitions in measured proportion to generals and immortals.   She and her followers kept close to her lair in the high hills, venturing forth only to trade goods, never seeking conquest, nor seeking armaments beyond the mundane toys that could be found wherever commerce gathered.  The gods gave her the Emerald, and she, unambitious and unmolested, had managed to keep it. 

Was her behavior cowardice, or guile?  If it was guile, still it was not enough.

Wen Xifeng was a boast, and would like nothing more than for him to lose his way in twisting speculation about her secret intent.  Let her have her plans, Jing Xie thought with a laugh.  Let her fill the bushy fur of her tails with hidden maps and secret directives.  Force and initiative were on his side.  What did Wen Xifeng have?  Her initial allotment of followers, give or take.  Her initially allotted relics, her Wine Pool and Meat Forest and the rest, not that she had put them to much use.  Her initially allotted gem.  Against his seven.

The breeze turned cold, and picked up its pace.  Jing Xie’s flowing hair whipped about his shoulders.

The day was growing old, the sun starting to slip behind the hills.  But there was still plenty of light left.  No need to concern himself yet with the complexities of battle under cover of night.  No need to rush.  He would wait, and admire his armies, and wait for Wen Xifeng to make the first move.  He would wait until sunset, then until dusk.  If she made him wait until nightfall, only then would he attack.  She would have the advantage of her night vision, then, but he would still win the fight, and with the added pleasure of winning a fight held on the enemy’s terms.

A messenger appeared at Jing Xie’s side.

“Jing Xie!” he panted.  “We have sighted the fox’s army coming over the hills!  Our — ”

Jing Xie froze time, absorbed a few pieces of novel information, composed a routine system of tactical directives, distributed these telepathically, and unfroze time.  He had little patience left for messengers.  They were always the same, made from a few basic molds, and the experienced general eventually grew tired of the script.

The messenger vanished as quickly as he’d appeared.  The intelligence he’d brought was technically new, but not surprising.

Wen Xifeng had made her move now, before sunset, bringing what looked at first blush like the whole of her initially allotted forces.  They bore the expected marks of enchantment by the Emerald of Fortification, and no other signs of improvement upon their initially allotted forms.

Under spectral sight, a vast population of ghosts could be spotted on the peaks of the high hills, much denser than the usual background radiation of vengeful dead which suffused any site where generals had clashed.  This could indicate one of a few things, none of them cause for alarm.  Wen Xifeng might have put her relics to more use than he’d realized, sacrificing thousands to race through her canonical relicpath at an uncanonical tempo.  Or she might have dipped her toes into the timestream, at some early and uncertain stage of her campaign, and received for her trouble only a useless ghost army from some bloodier, counterfactual war.

“Jing Xie!”  Another messenger, or perhaps the same one.  He had long since stopped noticing the little garnishes, the hairpin or the slight lisp, which distinguished each instrumental being from those with the same role.

So soon?  He must not have specified his preferences about these things carefully enough.

“Jing Xie!  The timestream is buckling near the west edge of the river!”

His left hand moved quickly, then, with practiced reflexes, placing the Ruby back into his pouch, retrieving the Amethyst.  He tapped his reserves of qi and applied a practiced sequence of sensory enhancements and personal defenses: Timestream Sight, Spectral Aetiology Sight, Forward-Flow Protection Bubble for himself, Forward-Flow Charm for his army, and Gathering Renewal Charge, just in case.

“Forward time flow is failing at the riverbank!” the messenger cried.  “We believe the Amethyst of Renewal is — ”

He was not familiar with this script, but he paused time anyway.  He did not want to spend precious seconds waiting for a monologue to spill out, when he could simply guzzle the pure information it contained.

Time refused to pause.

We’re already in the heat of battle?  How?  Time stopped and started as generals and immortals willed it, until two of them met on the field, and pushed diametrical wills against one another.

“Jing Xie,” said a familiar voice.  From where?  From behind him?  How — 

His head titled back, a blade at his throat, arms pinning him — 

Han Zhang Shuo?” he coughed.

The man’s warmth at his back, the arms less pinning than cradling him, almost an embrace — 

He gripped the Amethyst.  Qi surged, and fizzled away.  The Amethyst is refusing me?

He turned instead to his innate powers.  Disenchant, Vernal Bloomsurge, Purge Gemlight — no, why — Purge Gemlight, Purge Ghosts, Dischthonic Charm, Omnipurge — 

what is this blade, what has he done to it, why does it hold my neck no matter what I do — 

His timestream sight forced visions upon him, incoherent glimpses of some unknown past.  Nausea filled him.  He quelled it long enough to speak.

“Han Zhang Shuo?  I thought you were eliminated right at the beginning!  I thought Fang Huang took your only gem in battle!”

“In this cycle, I was,” his adversary said calmly.

“This cycle?!

He found breath coming easier to him.  Han Zhang Shuo’s blade pressed his neck less tightly now.  It still trapped him, but he could speak without effort.

“This Renewal cycle?  How?  You didn’t have any timestream leverage!  You were allotted the Ruby, not the Amethyst!  The Amethyst was Fang