6. Lords of the Edge

I’ve always imagined camels to be the jerkiest Earth animals you can ride, not that I’ve ever done it. So if you have, imagine a camel doing the worm, one that doesn’t give a hoot what’s in its way, and you’re riding it through an obstacle course. That probably doesn’t make sense, but the point is that many bruises and blisters were had that night.

Riding through the Dementrified Forest in the dead of night had its figurative ups and downs too. Up: I couldn’t see the messed-up landscapes we were traversing and be further traumatized by them. Down: I had to imagine it all, which made the sporadic noises ten times worse. At various points in our journey I heard what sounded like boulders grinding together; a mass chorus of cicada-like chittering, but in rhythm; and a shrill wailing cry that came from a different direction every time it sounded.

Additional up: Lickety soon became a lot more endearing to me just by being visible and semi-familiar. I privately named our mount Lickety, because when Chaps called it “theradon” in response to my question, I couldn’t tell if he meant the individual or the species. It rambled off to forage every time we stopped for a rest and usually returned chomping a mouthful of plants. I assumed it was a herbivore until our last rest, close to dawn, when I looked over to see a snake watching me from a few feet away on the log where I was sitting. I froze, but before either of us could do anything, Lickety’s tongues snagged it and it was gone in a few bites. “Uh, thanks,” I said, but from then on I was warier of getting close to that mouth.

I was still wary of Chaps, too, although he seemed committed to keeping me safe, at least until we got to where we were going. He knew I had a weapon that could make his theradon back off, and I hoped he wouldn’t want to find out what it could do to him. Then again, he also knew I was completely dependent on him now that we were off the path.

The sun was up and I was wishing I knew how to say “are we there yet” when Lickety started snuffling and turning its snout back and forth. Chaps tapped me in the side. “What?” He pointed to our right, where the plants were rustling in a familiar way. I strained my eyes until I saw it: something shiny sliding through the understory. I swore and started shoving and prodding Lickety in any way that might spur it forward.

Chaps grabbed my arms and put them around his waist, then gave a command and a tug to send us bounding toward, and then straight up, the nearest tree.

I squeezed him hard enough to do some minor kidney damage as we went vertical. I’d have gotten the mother of all whiplash otherwise, harness or no harness. Within seconds we were high enough that I could glimpse the spread of the ushussna below. It was at least as large as the one I’d met on my first day.

Lickety ran out onto a broad limb, and I realized too late what it was about to do. “Oh no, no, no, no…”

Before I could ask to get off and spend the rest of my short life in the tree instead, we were airborne. It caught a limb of the neighboring tree with an impact that probably loosened a few of my teeth and kept right on going. All we could do was cling tight and keep our bodies as low as possible to get smacked by fewer branches as it leapt from tree to tree.

We finally came to rest on top of another big limb, where I recovered some of the wind that had been knocked/screamed out of me. Though we’d left the ushussna behind, we didn’t return to the ground. Instead, Chaps pointed out a small platform with suspension bridges up ahead. With a few more jumps, we were hanging above it.

I unstrapped myself clumsily and dropped to the platform. Now that things were calmer, I could hear the murmur of voices not far off. The series of bridges in front of me led to what I assumed was our destination: a busy tree-settlement sprawling up, down, and sideways, with a few shacks and wagons on the ground below. Chaps pointed out the densest cluster of platforms at the nexus of a bunch of nearby bridges and indicated that I should wait for him there while he took care of his mount. (Did they park them? Put them out to tree-pasture? Was there a stable somewhere full of those things?)

As soon as he was out of sight, I bent down to kiss the solid, non-bucking floorboards, then, walking stiffly and trying not to wince too much, I headed into the settlement.

Compared to Brenest, it was kind of a dump. It wasn’t constructed on any sort of plan, but rather each generation had added on to it however they liked. Some sections were new, some dilapidated, some cut off from the main network entirely. I was nervous trusting some of the suspension bridges with my weight.

The section Chaps had pointed out was a kind of common area. Men, women, and a handful of children were having breakfast at scattered benches and tables while others passed by on errands, jostling each other on the narrow walkways. The savory smoke drifting over everything from open-air grills let me know that my appetite was returning after the washing machine cycle our journey had put my stomach through.

Whereas the Brenest villagers had accepted my presence, the people here barely noticed me. It was nice not to be the strangest thing in the room (from someone else’s perspective, I mean). I just had to find an out-of-the-way place to wait. It reminded me of looking for a lunch table on my first day at Apricot Hill Elementary right after our move to Morrow Glen, if there had been students there who looked like they could kill me with their bare toes. I wandered away from the high-traffic areas and found a railing with a decent view.

It turned out the whole thing was built on an overlook. To the south, the ground fell away sharply in a slope of mostly exposed rock with earth and smaller trees hugging it in places, before it leveled off and the forest resumed as normal. There was a waterfall somewhere nearby, faintly audible over the hubbub.

I couldn’t see any of the odeana fungus down below, which I surmised was why nearly all the buildings were in the trees. The ones who’d built shacks on the ground just had to take their chances.

Chaps was taking his sweet time getting back. I began to second guess his instructions. Had he meant somewhere else? There was no sign of him on any of the upper or lower levels or the nearby platforms. I was fighting back panic and getting ready to retrace all my steps when there was a lull in the chatter and I heard something from the level above me that pushed Chaps right out of my head.

“…platform is…we…have more…”

The voice was one of several coming from a sizable building one tree away. When I got there, I found the only stairs to it blocked by a muscular man with a smug expression, close-cropped hair, and a collection of macho-looking bands and ornaments on his bare arms. I ignored every survival instinct telling me not to engage him.

There was someone at the top of those stairs I might be able to talk to.

My first polite attempt to get past him got me shoved back with a few rough words. The glint in his eyes told me that having someone new to look down on was making his morning.

“Can you understand anything I’m saying? I have to get through.” I pointed up the steps.

He nodded but didn’t budge. Instead he pointed to my backpack with some more curt words, then held out a hand palm up.

“You want a bribe. Okay, let me see what I can do.” I knelt and went through the backpack. I had no idea if any of Esther’s items would be worth anything to him. The pepper spray, flashlight, and multitool I kept out of sight. Could I pass off school supplies or girls’ clothing as something exotic and valuable?

Armbands stepped closer and spoke up again. He’d spotted the Walkman, and it intrigued him. I instinctively buried it and held out the camera instead. Not that I wasn’t sick of Third Eye Blind by now, but I wasn’t ready to give up the only Earth media I had, my reminder that there were people somewhere out there who talked like me. But it was too late. He knocked the camera aside and reached for the backpack.

I scooted backward, dragging it away from him, and pulled out the pepper spray. But I had to resist the urge to make a demonstration. This wasn’t an animal I could scare off, this was a bully. And judging by the laughter I heard behind me, he wasn’t the only one present. There was nowhere for me to run. If I fought back I would probably end up losing everything, or worse.

Armbands bent down with a predatory smile and said something that got even more laughter.

I was reaching for the Walkman when the most beautiful sound I had heard since my arrival washed over me from the background, like the voice of an angel with a slightly nasal baritone. A complete sentence.

“Next time you’re seeking a buyer for your valuables, boy, don’t follow your first impulse.”

I almost dislocated something snapping my head around. Everyone was looking at the speaker, a wiry man who I guessed was around my father’s age, maybe older, but still had a full head of sandy hair. His outfit would best be described as eclectic. It wasn’t especially loud or noticeable at a glance, but when I paid attention to it I could tell none of the pieces were meant to go together, from the bulky shoes to the strangely cut coat to the loose lightweight scarf with the intricate pattern. His face wasn’t like any I’d seen so far: wider eyes, a more prominent nose, and skin that had seen a lot more direct sunlight than anyone’s in Brenest. His language had a different cadence too, and more tonal variation. But then I’d already seen more ethnic variety here in fifteen minutes than in the past two days. This crowd had probably come from all over the map.

I didn’t care about any of that. I jumped up and made straight for the newcomer, babbling, “Can you understand me? Can you understand me?”

He held up his hands. “Yes. Be calm.”

“Sorry. Hi. It’s just, you are such a sight for sore ears right now. Um, I mean…”

While I was doing my best to torpedo this newfound understanding, he snapped his fingers at a girl who’d picked up the camera. She grudgingly handed it back to me. “Take better care of your artifacts,” he said.

Armbands, meanwhile, wasn’t happy about losing his chance to become Var’s consumer electronics kingpin. He was shouting angrily and stabbing his finger at me and the backpack.

“No,” said my rescuer. “You haven’t lost anything. Now step aside, Lugo’s expecting me.” Armbands growled, but made way for him. “And the boy is coming too.” Before the guard could react, he was pulling me up the stairs.

Halfway up, a click and some scattered exclamations made us look back. Armbands had pulled out a tubular device and aimed it at my head. The newcomer spun around, whipped off his scarf, and held it out in front of us just as the weapon fired with a loud pop. Something struck the cloth, sending ripples across it but otherwise leaving it unmoved. I flinched and fell backwards onto the stairs above me. A nasty-looking spiked projectile fell straight down from the scarf to stick in the wood between my feet.

“Enough,” said Scarf. “Persistence is not always a virtue. No one needs to get hurt here. And the Immanent Flux are going to hear how you treat their guests.”

Armbands sheathed the tube at his side and charged us. Scarf clicked his tongue. “Back up,” he said to me, and braced himself. With the scarf covering his fist, he dodged Armbands’ first swing and hit him in the shoulder.

It didn’t look like that hard of a punch, but it sent Armbands spinning and tumbling down the steps while Scarf recoiled and held the handrail for balance. He hauled me to my feet and continued on upwards, shoving me ahead of him, leaving Armbands groaning and clutching at his collarbone at the bottom. We stopped at the first landing, in front of a curtained doorway with music drifting through it.

“You need to be more careful whom you approach,” he told me. “This place attracts everyone who doesn’t belong elsewhere, and that includes fugitives. The criminals tend to get hired for protection, but they can be hard to control, isn’t that right, Lugo?” He raised his voice as we entered the hall behind the curtain, and a woman at the far end turned around. “Tell your people to choose smarter guards!”

“Forside!” she greeted him. “Blah you bleh only one today. You bring bleh blah?”

“No, we just met. He — actually, I don’t know your name yet, pilgrim.”

“Reid. Hey, why can I understand everything you say but not her?”

“Wait here for a bit. We’ll talk as soon as I’m done.” He went off with Lugo, leaving me hanging awkwardly at the edge of the room.

I was getting religious vibes again, though of a different kind than yesterday. The space was more open, all the walls and furniture looked movable, and the decor was a flurry of shapes and colors like my stereotypical idea of modern art. I couldn’t tell if the group of similarly-dressed people sitting in the center of the hall were talking to each other or praying. As for the music, the only genre I could compare it to was jazz, insofar as it was mostly improvisation. The tune was continually morphing until you could barely remember what it was a variation on. The few people who tried to talk to me left me alone as soon as I indicated that I didn’t understand and was waiting for someone.

Forside returned before I could get too fidgety. “Sorry to keep you waiting, Impulse.” The word for impulse in his language was Avrid, which works better as a nickname in my opinion. Either he liked that it sounded a little like my real name, or first impressions just meant that much to him.

“I knew I’d have to postpone my plans when I ran into you. Plenty of innocent young faces turn up in this place not knowing what they’re looking for, but not many of them carry devices like yours. You should keep those out of sight for now. Anyone would know they’re not from Var. They can do many things here, but not that level of making. Or that.” He pointed to my digital watch, and I took it off and stuffed it in my pocket.

“You’re not from Earth, are you? Do you know where Earth is?” I flipped through the journal to find my crude map.

“Earthhh,” he mused. “No to both, I’m afraid. How long have you been here?”

“I just got here.”

“Var, I mean.”

“Four days.”

“Four days’ worth of questions. We should sit down somewhere quiet for this. Let’s go to my lodgings.”

A new guard was on duty when we descended, to my relief. “Since you just arrived,” said Forside, “welcome to Camp Outlook.”

He led me at a lively pace across most of the settlement’s length, and I spent the bulk of that time venting to him. Questions could wait; this was my first chance to tell someone who could listen just what a rough week I was having.

“…and on top of everything, it’s like all of nature here, the wildlife, maybe even more than that, it’s out of control!”

“I take it the living world develops in a more moderate fashion where you come from.”

“Way more moderate.”

“I know how you feel.”

“Where are you from, then?”

“Everywhere,” he said. “I’m a castaway.”

“Like me?”

“I think not, but that remains to be seen. As for why you can understand me, I’ll explain more shortly. For now, to simplify, I’m able to use words in a way that transmits their meaning across languages.”

I nodded like that made sense. “And that’s how you understand me, too?”

“Only the words I’ve already acquired. Some of your speech is nonsense to me, though there are ways around that. For now, the more simply you speak, the easier this will be.”

We emerged onto a wide deck that extended out over the slope, and I hung back to take in the view. A ramp wound its way downhill from the side of the deck to the forest below, where a path disappeared into the trees.

“What is this place’s deal?” I asked Forside when I caught up to him again.

“You at least know where we are?”

“More or less.”

“This is the intelligible limit of Var. That makes it a — ”

“Wait wait, what does that mean, limit?”

This earned me a searching look, but he kept whatever he was thinking to himself. “Every domain I’ve ever been to,” he said carefully, “is bounded if you go far enough.”

“What, would you fall off the edge of the world? Planets are round, you can just keep going in a circle.”

“Is there a physical edge? Who knows? No one would be able to travel that far.”

“What’s stopping them?”

“Self-preservation. You can try it for yourself later if you like. The point is that wherever there is a boundary, there are people intent on challenging it. Camp Outlook was built by and for those who push against the status quo. They find their way here for any number of reasons: explorers, outlaws, believers, scientists, those seeking contact with the wider universe…”

“’No one here is from here,’” I murmured.

“A neat way of putting it.”

“It’s something my father says about our town. We moved there from somewhere else, and so did almost everyone we know. People are always coming and going, moving to other places.”

“Be grateful you come from a place where that’s possible. Where anyone can belong anywhere. Someday the whole universe will be like that,” he added wistfully, “but not in our lifetime, I think.”

“But what did you mean by self— ”

“Careful!” We were approaching the end of one of the larger trestle bridges when he held out an arm in front of me. A group of men were using a crane mounted on the tree ahead of us to winch up a cage onto our level. The creature in the cage was making its displeasure known, thrashing, growling, and vocalizing in a way that almost sounded like there were words in it.

The trees in front of us were markedly different from the surrounding forest, each of their trunks splitting into many segments to better support the imposing, windowless structures built on them. There were none of the usual evergreen-like trees nearby and the whole area was much darker than normal, thanks to the broad leaves that the upper branches spread out like a ceiling over everything.

“What is this?”

“A place to experiment.” He pointed down and I finally noticed what we had been walking over while I was focused on our Q&A. The ground below the bridge was covered with cages and enclosures for living things. I saw a pack of animals like smaller, longer theradons swarming and clinging upside down to the grille on top of their cage; a massive furry bulk hunched in a corner, motionless except for a rumble that might have been its breathing; clusters of bulbous leaves continuously opening and closing; and one seemingly empty cell where the bare ground appeared to be churning.

“They keep talking about bypassing this section,” Forside muttered, “but they can’t agree on who’ll build the extra bridges.”

The cage hanging from the crane spun slowly until its front side was facing us, giving me a better look inside.

“Is…is that a person in there?”

“I’m sure it used to be. Do you want to find out?”

The cage’s occupant was looking at us now. The one eye I could see under its hair couldn’t have been human, but the way it focused on us, as comparatively quiet as we were being…

“No,” I said, barely above a whisper. Forside nodded and steered me around the operation in a wide berth. I avoided looking too closely at the men working the crane as we passed, but I thought I saw some extra appendages, iridescent skin that might have been scales, and a stance more like a quadruped on its hind legs than a biped. We walked the rest of the way in silence.

We reached the outskirts of the camp and stopped directly underneath a small platform one level above us. “Here we are. My room’s just up there,” said Forside. He pulled out a dark yellow, palm-sized oval and rubbed it briefly between his hands. He held it up toward the platform above us and I caught a faint whiff of something sickly and floral.

“Uh, what are we—”

“Wait for it. And step back.”

There was a creak, a click, and a trapdoor fell open, letting down a ladder of lightweight boards strung together with the same kind of vines as the awning I’d seen the other day. I followed him up it and into a dark room. He tugged on one section of vine and the plant fibers coiled up, pulling the rungs together. Once the whole thing had retracted inside, he closed the trapdoor.

I reached for my glowstick, but he touched a ring hanging from the ceiling and it filled the room with a bright white glow, a little too harsh but a welcome change. The room was only furnished with a bed, table and chairs, some shelves, and a jug and basin.

“Please, sit.”

“Thank you.” I collapsed into a chair and laid my arms and head on the table. “Seriously, thank you. I thought I was going to go crazy. You don’t know what a relief this is.”

“Don’t I?” He raised an eyebrow. “I appreciate your thanks. Just know that nothing in this or any domain is free, especially not information. We’ll learn from each other. Now, tell me about your domain.”

“You keep saying domain. What is that?”

“It simply means this particular section of the universe, where reality behaves in these particular ways. No one knows how many there are, and still fewer know they even exist. To most people, their domain is the known universe.” He added in a gentler tone, “I realize that may be hard to hear.”

“Yep. Yeah,” I said weakly. “I was one of those people four days ago.”

I told him about Earth as best I could, though I don’t think I did it any kind of justice. I kept a close eye on his body language and switched topics whenever he seemed to be losing interest. He’d been friendly enough so far, but he wasn’t just doing this for my sake. He stood to gain by learning from me, and I had to make it worth his while. What intrigued him the most was when I made it clear that I’d never seen anything back home that I would describe as supernatural, at least not until the few days before I left. He asked more clarifying questions until it was clear that everything in my experience followed strict laws of nature. He didn’t get excited, but I could tell that information clinched something important for him.

“What brings you here? Whom are you with?”

“It was a total accident, I didn’t mean to come here. My sister was taken.”

“Taken by whom? How?”

I told him the whole story. He was silent for a minute after I finished, then said, “You still never mentioned who took her.”

“That’s because I don’t know.”

“You were there when it happened. That was how you came here. Did you see anyone at all?”

I struggled to answer this one. “Yes, I was there. But…no.” I felt like that wasn’t quite right. But it was the best I could come up with. “I guess I didn’t see anyone.” He was already suspicious by nature, and this non-answer wasn’t helping.

“Do you have a map?” I asked. “There are these mountains to the northeast of here…I thought I saw her on a mountain, but then again I thought I saw all kinds of crap right after that.”

“Describe it.”

“It all sounds stupid.”

“Stupider than what you’ve seen here?”

After listening to my even less adequate than usual descriptions, he said, “I don’t like to flatten your hopes. It’s unlikely that she’s even in this domain.”

My hopes were indeed flattened. “If she’s somewhere else, there’s a way I could get there, right?”

“There are various ways to travel between domains, some more difficult than others. I believe someone in your position would even have more ways available than most. But only if you know where you’re going.”

“I don’t have a lot to go on. I did make some drawings of the thingy they sent her messages with. They’re really bad.”

“Show me.” He scrutinized my drawings and said, “This looks like a sequencer. They’re not exactly common, but it doesn’t help us narrow down the possibilities. It’s unfortunate that you lost it. They tend to come in linked pairs, so we might have used that connection to find the other one.”

“So I’m out of luck.”

“I didn’t say that.” He grew more thoughtful. “What I will say is, consider carefully what destination you truly want to pursue. Your known universe just got much larger, and your options much broader. I understand you feel obligated to reunite with your sister and your parents — ”

“Duh, they’re my family.”

“That is what they’ve been all your life up to now, yes. And it could continue that way if you so desire. Me, I found a family of my own choosing. That path is open to you too. You don’t realize the scope of your opportunity just yet. Once you know what you’re doing, you could become one of the freest people in existence. Then you can decide what kind of limits you want to accept. Then you can decide if you really want to go back.”

That got heavy real fast. There was a long pause while I tried to think of something to say.

Forside broke the silence. “One thing at a time, however. I’m sure you have more questions than I could answer if I had the entire day. For both of our sakes, let’s get you competent to talk to someone other than me.”

“Yes please.”

“I’ll explain as best I can. I assume you don’t know Hovatch — my language?”

“No.”

“And yet you understand something with each word you hear. Without getting technical, we call what you’re understanding inwords.”

“Is it just your language that has those?”

“No, that’s the point. They’re independent of language.”

“So if I learn them, I can talk to anyone?”

“Exactly. Right now, with me, you have a shortcut available because of all the words I’ve acquired myself. You’re receiving both the Hovatch word I speak and the inword it carries. Instead of receiving it passively like you’re doing at the moment, you’ll need to make a conscious act to imprint that meaning permanently.”

Mildly nervous, I said, “Great. How do I do that?”

“This is always the hard part,” he said under his breath as he dimmed the light. “It’ll help if you close your eyes. You can stay sitting, or you can lie down if you prefer.”

“I’d just get sleepy.”

“Get as calm as you can without doing that. This is why we had to go somewhere private. You’ll need silence.”

“Silence. Do we have to?”

“Of course not. You’re free to stay ignorant instead.”

“Harsh.”

“Shhh.”

From here on he spoke in a tone reminiscent of a guided meditation tape that one of my spacier teachers made the class listen to one time. “You’d better not be hypnotizing me,” I said.

“I assume that means some kind of manipulation, and no. This only works if you will it.”

“Are we like — ”

“Stop talking, Avrid.”

The longer you continue to talk, Acton, the longer we all have to stay after the bell. Is that what you want?”

Bells…Taco Bell…I could murder someone for some nachos right now…

What if I invented nachos in this world?

“Try to clear your mind of distractions.”

No one’s trying to blame him, Allison. You acknowledged that he’s easily distracted…”
He’s a boy!
Let’s ask him. Reid, have you been working on listening like we talked about?”

No. Block it out. It doesn’t matter. My mind’s clear.

“Have you ever looked at your reflection and thought about your own existence as if from the outside? About how you exist as one thing, one person, among many?”

I had. It was unsettling.

“Try and recapture that perspective again.”

There exists a boy named Reid. Not just “you,” the subject; to the rest of…reality, you’re the object.

He’s a good kid, you know, lively, friendly, but…”

Esther’s brother…what’s his name again?”

I’m sure the others would love to, I just don’t know if my youngest would be up to it…Don’t tell him I said that.”

What’s wrong, buddy?”
What’s the point of me being alive?”
The big questions always come out at night, don’t they? The point…well, you make your own point. We all do.”
You mean it’s all just made up?”
No, no! It’s not just made up. It’s real, you get to make it real…Oh, kiddo, it’s nothing to cry about. It’s a good thing…”

What did I dig all that up for? I exist. I’m a person. Focus on that.

“Now in the same way, you need to become aware of yourself thinking. You contain countless learned ideas, and at this moment, you are making them present to your consciousness, combining and separating them.”

Honestly Reid, try to think before you — ”

Enough of that. Thinking about thinking. Putting ideas together. Hey, I even put an idea together with itself.

“Here comes the part you wouldn’t be able to do in your home domain, if I understood your story right. All those ideas exist as a part of you. They’re like the shape things give to part of your mind. The way I find works best is to keep bringing concepts to mind and grasp what underlies them all.”

That sounded like it would be way too abstract for me. The strange thing was, when I attempted it, it almost made sense.

Treehouses. Loneliness. Cages. Questions. Nachos? Sure, that counts as an idea.

It was still hard to concentrate, but seemingly just by the fact of trying, I was slowly becoming conscious of my thought process on a new level.

“You shape it all the time without knowing you’re doing it. This time you need to hold it steady and choose to act on it. Focus your will — no, don’t clench, that doesn’t help…”

This rigmarole ultimately went nowhere the first, let’s say four times we tried it. Forside was prepared for this and concealed his frustration as best he could.

If I ever wanted to move on from all this silence, I’d have to try harder to silence myself for just a little while so I could get hold of the perspective I kept circling around. I gave it one more try, and like that moment when something in a schoolbook I’d been staring at finally clicked, I just barely saw what Forside meant.

“I got it! I think…”

“Take the next word I say, take its meaning, and shape that part of your mind with it.” He pondered for a second. “Open.”

“Oh wow, that was weird. I think it worked? I did something. How do I know if it worked?”

He smiled. “You’ll have to try it on someone else.”

“Do I have to go through all that every time to get a new word?”

“No. That was just to get you in the right state of mind. Now that you’ve conceptualized it, the next time should be easier. Try to acquire more as we talk.”

“What about when I’m talking to someone besides you?”

“That’s the next step. Let’s try a word from your language that I don’t understand. But not something unique to your domain, or my language won’t have a word for it and things will get more complicated.”

“Oh, easy. How am I supposed to know what isn’t unique to my domain, let alone…okay. Let me think.” After a few duds, I let my mind wander and it took me back to traumatic memories of my nighttime ride through the forest. “Here’s something I just found out isn’t unique to Earth: snakes. You know that word? Snake?” He shook his head.

“Maybe your place has them too.” I sketched one out for him. “Long thin animal, no arms or legs, wiggles around on the ground, always doing the tongue thing?” I licked the air.

He nodded. “A zilif.” I didn’t catch the meaning as before, but he sounded confident we were talking about the same thing. “Here’s the fastest way to do it, now that you know both words mean the same thing. Hold them in your mind together and just concentrate on the meaning.”

“Okay.”

“You probably concentrated on a mental image when I said that. Ignore the image if you can, just grasp the concept you automatically associate with the sounds.”

He was right. I did my best to ignore the pictures of Nik’s pet snakes that kept popping up. It was tricky, but I thought I had it.

“Now do the same thing as before.”

“Snake,” I said to him after a pause.

“Well done, I understood that. See, we’ve extracted the inword from the language-words. It becomes habitual with practice. I had to stop myself from doing it just now so we could test you.”

“I wish they taught us this in Spanish class.”

“You’ll find things that were unified in your domain are somewhat more…breakable here.”

“Then why don’t more people here do it? That’s crazy useful.”

“It takes more of a toll on them. They’re part of this domain too; the same laws apply to them. If one of them crossed over into a world like yours, it would be a different matter.”

“So I can do stuff they can’t because…I’m from a different kind of domain? Whatever that means?”

“Not just you. Has any of your property been behaving strangely?”

I pointed to the Links of Legendaryness. “Well, this thing brought me here. I think. As for the rest… Wait! Let me show you something.” I showed him the disappearing writing in Esther’s journal. He examined it inside and out while I started doing pen tricks under the table.

“This is a lock, right?”

“Right.”

“So this book was made to conceal whatever its user writes in it?”

“And that’s why it disappears? Holy cow. You’re saying it’s doing what it was made to do, just…more so? If that makes sense.”

“Perfect sense. You can’t always predict how it will manifest, but that is effectively what happens. I don’t pretend to fully understand the why of it. I deal in expediency.”

I thought about how the music had affected me, and how potent the pepper spray had been even when out of normal range. “That actually does make a lot of sense.” The possibilities were exhilarating. I’m sure I was bug-eyed thinking about it.

“What about clothes?”

“If you brought them with you.”

“Huh.” I pulled off my right shoe to examine the sole of my foot. It was still only blistered where the sock was torn. The protected skin was as normal as it had been four days ago. “Wild. Oh, another thing! I’ve had this weirdly precise sense of time since I came here. Like how it’s been — ” I was going to say how long it had been since I arrived in camp, but the usual number didn’t pop into my head. Then I remembered that my watch was in my pocket. As soon as I put it on: “Two hours and twenty-one minutes since I got here.”

“A timepiece,” said Forside approvingly. “You’re catching on. I’ll show you another example.” He went to his own bag in the corner and got out a simple-looking device consisting of a cylinder of some lightweight material with a free-spinning rod through its center. The top of the cylinder had markings around the edge like a compass and a pointer that turned with the rod. At the bottom of the rod was a sort of fin with shallow channels carved into its surface.

“This was made by seafarers. They call it a reclaimer of ways. We just call it a locator.”

“Where’s it from?”

“A place where people had to get creative about navigation. But here you can use it even more creatively. Once it acquires the word of whatever you want to locate, it can point toward it.” He held it upright by the cylinder and we watched the pointer turn slowly. “Oh, that’s right. The last thing I set it to find was one of the traders I do business with. It’s still tracking him.”

“Sick.” Especially since compasses didn’t seem to work here. I was spreading out the rest of Esther’s items on the table in hopes that he could help me figure out what they did.

“Not at all, it works perfectly. May I?” He examined the Links. “This talisman, it’s valuable to you?”

“Well, to Esther…I mean, yes, to me too.”

“And you say it brought you here. Would you mind if my friend had a look at it?”

“Anything if it gets me more answers.”

“Be careful of that mindset. I have errands to run around camp, so with your permission, I’ll take this with me. You should have all you need to practice conversing with other people.”

“Okay, but can we do a test run before you go?”

We went to the nearest hub platform, where I looked for a passerby to ask the quintessential tourist question after reviewing all the words with Forside. I settled on a harmless-looking older woman with a hand cart and said, “Excuse me, where is the nearest toilet?”

She gave me a bemused look, so I tried phrasing it differently. “Could you please show me where the toilet is?”

She gasped in outrage, pulled some implement with a long handle out of her cart and took a swipe at me with it. Forside dragged me away while she yelled at us until we were out of sight.

“What the hell was that?”

He was trying to suppress a laugh. “Sorry, Avrid. My mistake.”

“Are you not supposed to say that here?”

“I don’t want to know what those words in that order meant to her and neither do you. We need to acquire you some word relationships. I can’t believe I forgot that part.”

ONE MUTUALLY AGONIZING GRAMMAR LESSON, ONE SILENT CONNIPTION,
AND THREE CUPS OF THE LOCAL CAFFEINE EQUIVALENT LATER

“Much better. Now I really do have to go. I’ll come with you as far as the Immanent Flux headquarters.”

“I can’t come with you?”

“Don’t worry, you can trust them. I’ve worked with them for a long time. I don’t bother with the philosophies and superstitions you’ll find here — most of them are all about patterns and future fulfillment and dreams like that — but theirs is one I can at least respect. When your world is so defined by change, why would you worship anything else? Lugo can provide you room and board if you’re willing to work for it. I’ll meet you back there in the evening. And as I said, be careful whom you approach. Not everyone would receive you this positively if they knew who you were.”

“I’ll figure out how to fit in if I just keep my mouth shut for a while. That’ll be the hard part.”

“It’s not fitting in with your surroundings you should be concerned with. It’s using them to propel you forward.”

I chuckled.

“What?”

“Nothing. You just sound like a friend of mine.”

“Good, you have intelligent friends. There may be hope for you.”

“Ouch. But seriously…fitting in is how I get ahead. Or at least it was. That reminds me, important question. If I stay here too long, what are the chances I end up like those guys by the cages?”

“That would be up to you. Do you fancy yourself with, say, a few extra senses or jaws that can chew through wood?”

“They did that to themselves? I think I’ll pass.”

“Or it could be as simple as putting on some extra muscles.”

“Extra…how simple are we talking?”

“It’s all experimental, of course. The kind of thing that got them exiled out here in the first place.”

“Still gonna pass.”

Despite wanting to keep a low profile, I headed out of the Immanent Flux building as soon as I was done with the chores Lugo gave me. It was only comforting up to a point that Forside trusted her community. Whenever I tried to make friends with them, I would end up getting a speech about how change was the only true reality and we would be free when we embraced the indeterminate way of nature or something.

I knew the idea was for me to get out and talk to more people, but Forside had the skills and experience to navigate this place. Sticking close to him made the most sense to me. Once I tracked him down, I did my best to stay out of sight while still being able to catch some of his conversations with the people he met. Most of it went over my head anyway. When I saw him show the “talisman” to one of his contacts, I was curious enough to get closer than usual. They went into the back room of the man’s shop, and I slipped into the front room while it was unoccupied.

“A powerful purpose and a disrupted bond,” Forside was saying. “Small wonder he was displaced.” The other man said something I couldn’t hear, and he replied, “Not clear. There is something he’s not telling me, but he may not remember it himself.”

“…”

“What kind of third agent? Can you get any more detail?”

“…”

“Hmm. I can only think of one thing that hard to trace.”

Here his contact caught sight of me through the doorway and nudged him. He saw me before I could duck out of sight.

He didn’t bring up my eavesdropping afterward, but didn’t give me the opportunity to do any more. I spent the rest of the afternoon striking up broken conversations with other people he knew and the friends of friends they introduced me to.

“How did it go?” Forside asked, sliding onto the bench opposite me back at Flux HQ and handing the Links back.

“I’m getting better. I only almost got beaten up once. Oh, and I talked to some guys about this.” I showed him a rough map I’d copied into the journal and pointed to that city in the flatlands that I wasn’t supposed to visit. I had circled it and put a big question mark next to it. “Do you know anything about So Ameda? I think I said that right.”

“I don’t know much about Var at all beyond the Effoc. I mainly come to meet and trade with acquaintances here.”

“Every time I mention the place, someone brings up that it’s supposed to be cursed. Are curses real now?”

“I’ve seen too much to deny the possibility. But in my experience, people tend to use that word for evils they don’t understand.”

Reactions to So Ameda had been mixed to say the least. One told me it had been perfectly normal when he’d visited it some time ago (there was no shortcut for understanding their units of time, and I didn’t want to know badly enough to do math). Another alluded to some disaster I couldn’t make head or tail of which had happened there in recent memory. But one thing multiple sources could agree on (besides the curse bit) was that there was still knowledge to be had there.

Seeing my discouragement, Forside said, “Can you handle any more advice today?”

“Sure. Fine.”

“It’s important to understand the risks before you approach something new. But sometimes you can’t understand all the risks until you approach. I know that can be frightening. It’s also the only way to make any meaningful discovery or change.”

“Enough of your rambling,” said Lugo, coming up to our table. “Reid, you missed some sections on the new rain gutter. I had to fasten them myself.”

“I did the best I could, Miss Lugo, and I knew I could count on your sharp eyes to fix any mistakes I made.”

“Flatterer,” she said after Forside’s translation assist, and rapped me on the head with a piece of gutter. “I know you didn’t teach him that, Forside.” She acted annoyed, but I spotted the same suppressed smile teachers had when they liked me in spite of themselves. Success.

That night, I climbed into my hammock with real optimism for the first time. When I went looking for Forside the next morning, I was told he had left Camp Outlook.

What? Did he say where he was going?”

“He said he had to get in touch with some friends,” Lugo told me.

“Did he say when he’d be back?”

“He wasn’t certain, but he expected several days at least.”

“I can’t believe this. Why would he leave without telling me?”

“You would have tried to follow him like you were doing yesterday.”

Touche. Maybe I had gotten a little clingy. I thought it was justified under the circumstances. Regardless, I was reeling. “What am I supposed to do until he gets back?”

“That’s up to you.” Not what I wanted to hear. “But if you intend to keep staying here, you could start by fetching more water.”

After doing odd jobs all morning, I got to chatting with one of the less wild-eyed explorers I’d met yesterday, a man named Kir. He was intensely curious about me and willing to answer questions tit for tat.

“Forside told me this was the ‘intelligent limit’ or something, but he never got around to explaining that.” We were talking on the big deck with the southward view, and I pointed to the path down below us. “What’s actually out there?”

“I could die a happy man if I knew that. I’ve spent turnings upon turnings studying it, but I’ve never gotten any closer to it physically than the others.” He stood up. “Do you want to try it?”

A man at the neighboring bench overheard us and interrupted. “Don’t listen to him. That land isn’t for man to tread.”

“What’s he talking about?” I asked as Kir led me away from him and toward the ramp.

“Nothing but ignorance. I guarantee you he’s never been there himself, only listened to stories.”

I’d learned about taboos in social studies, mostly about how they existed to keep people in line who didn’t know science. This taboo struck me as one of the lamer ones I’d heard of. It was just “don’t go there”. They could have at least made up some special monsters if they wanted to scare people away. But apparently no one ever spotted even the usual creatures in that part of the forest.

It’s up to you.

“All right,” I said. “Let’s do it.”

Everything was as normal as could be when we started down the path. I kept half expecting something to go wrong, but I relaxed as we went on. Just a pleasant walk in the woods.

Kir stopped at a tree with a bright orange flag on it. “I’ll wait for you here.”

“Really? You’re sure you can’t come the rest of the way with me?”

“I know my limits. I’m curious to see how you’ll do, though.”

“How far should I go?”

“As far as you can.”

“Well, I’m gonna turn back at some point. I’m not spending another night alone in the woods.”

“As you wish.”

A minute or two later, the path dissipated into undergrowth. Looking back, I could still make out Kir between the trees watching me eagerly. And still there was nothing at all threatening about the forest ahead of me. It’s all in the mind. It can’t stop me. This is how discoveries get made.

I stepped off the path and walked onward.

Next:
7. Gifts and Curses

Previous:
5. Pictionary: First Contact Edition


AUTHOR’S NOTE:
Hello again, language nerds. I humbly request that you stick a muffin in it right now and keep it there for the duration. Detailing all the speech complexities we ran into would be even more of a slog for me and most readers than the nonverbal stuff, and I already have to paraphrase all these conversations from memory. So yes, I may play fast and loose with the vocabulary I put in some people’s mouths. If you catch someone saying words he couldn’t have known and think it breaks some kind of continuity, you’re probably right. Have a cookie when you’re done with that muffin.

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