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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 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 were 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 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 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.  And 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 though 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 bookshelves, 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 if 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 toward laughter-kindness, although with a heavier emphasis on the former.

“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 there 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 (for 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, 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 they can’t even 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 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.