I don’t remember when I started running.
Not jogging to hurry things along, but all-out, escape-from-gangbangers-with-large-knives desperate sprinting. I was leaping over fallen branches and slaloming between trees to get away from…wait, what was I getting away from? A glance over each shoulder showed nothing chasing me, nor could I hear anything over my own panting and footfalls.
Being scared out of my mind without knowing what I was scared of was jarring enough to give me pause now that I was thinking more clearly. I’d been going at full speed for about as long as I was capable of anyway, so I slowed to a walk, then a stop. I stood still for a good five minutes listening, primed to bolt again if I heard anything bigger than a squirrel.
There was nothing. Still, the feeling of dread was strong enough to cling like sweat residue even after my heart settled and most of the adrenaline fizzled out.
This was presumably my cue to turn back.
Only I hadn’t kept track of my heading during that whole mad dash. What direction was I even facing? It was hard to get a good read on the sun where I was, but it looked like it was to my left. That didn’t seem right. I thought I saw an opening in the trees up ahead and pushed forward in hopes of a better view.
I emerged at the foot of what looked like the same slope I had descended with Kir minutes ago. For reasons that refused to stick in my mind, I had made a full one-eighty and run back north. The muted sounds of Camp Outlook confirmed it, drifting toward me from the west.
I walked toward the noise, my appetite for breaking taboos completely suppressed. On some level deeper than logic, all I wanted was to get back to the known.
Kir greeted me with relief when I found the path again. I’d been gone longer than he expected. “What happened to me?” I demanded.
“What happens to everyone. Don’t be afraid, you’re safe.”
“Safe. That’s a damn lie.” I leaned against a tree and closed my eyes. “How about trapped?”
“Do you remember anything?”
I shook my head. He tried to hide his disappointment.
“So that map,” I said with my eyes still closed. “The edges of the map, they’re blank because we literally can’t go past them?”
“Because no one’s figured out how to go past them yet.”
“And how long have you been trying?”
“Oh, I’m starting to lose track now…at least twenty turnings.”
I gave in and did the math as we walked back to camp. We worked out that a typical turning was roughly a hundred and ten days, meaning he’d been at this for over six years. “And nothing to show for it?”
“That’s not true! I’ll take you to my lookout and you can see for yourself.”
The rest of that afternoon cemented my feeling that I should leave Camp Outlook. For starters, when we returned to the deck we were met by none other than Pargest.
He’d arrived early that morning and spent the whole day searching for me, presumably with some time off to berate Chaps for losing me. Now that I was verbal enough to awkwardly hammer out a functional conversation, he was almost as eager for me to meet his group as I was not to meet any more weird groups. I couldn’t very well turn him down, seeing as I more or less owed my newfound skill to him. Besides, he was resourceful and I couldn’t afford to be too picky about allies. Kir and I agreed to meet at the upper east hub when I was done.
The new group had none of the energy that had put me off the Flux, but I wasn’t any more comfortable with them. It didn’t help that their meeting place was within view of the dark sector with all the cages and labs, or that they were more aggressive and a lot more direct in their attempts at persuasion.
I learned that Pargest and his friend had been so clandestine about sending me here because they had their status in the village to think of. “If the Lavintai knew we hadn’t given up our old views, our lives would get much more difficult.”
“Lavintai.” That word sounded familiar.
“They took you to their sacred place the other day, didn’t they?”
Oh. Those people. It turned out they were the dominant belief system in this region. I was learning little by little about the different ways people responded to a world that was basically subject to evolution on steroids. For the Lavintai, according to Pargest, that meant spending generation after generation looking for some vast pattern in nature and letting it dictate their whole lives.
People like him and his crew weren’t having any of that. “The flow of life doesn’t direct,” their leader explained to me, “it’s waiting for someone to direct it. There are lands where man has given up stagnating and made his own pattern. The advances they’ve made at this outpost are only the start.”
“Not to be rude, but what does any of that have to do with me?”
“You come from beyond the world. You’re a pattern breaker by definition. A new element always sets the flow on a new course.”
“Okay, but what do you actually want me to do? If I help you, how can you help me?”
The more questions I asked, the vaguer their answers became. I got the impression they hadn’t thought their pitch all the way through. They just wanted to get me on their side before someone else did.
The most valuable thing I learned before leaving was by accident. Pargest wanted to review some of my drawings now that we could talk about them. I was redoing my solar system diagram, copying some of the old labels out of habit, when he interrupted me by flipping back and forth between the two.
“Are these words the same?” He pointed to my label for Earth on both drawings: I live here. He understood it on the new one, but not the old.
I eyeballed the green gel pen I was using. It was the same one I’d had in my pocket for most of the trip, the one I’d been fidgeting with while talking to Forside. Just for the heck of it, I took out a different pen and wrote, “I need to find my sister.”
“No,” said Pargest, leaning intently over the page, “I can’t read that.”
I switched to the green one, wrote the same thing below it, and his eyes widened. “’I need to find my sister.’”
“Ha!” Forside had mentioned something about objects acquiring words. If my guess was right, the green pen had picked up the inwords Forside was using while I was messing around with it during his lessons yesterday.
“I figured something out! Take that!” Triumphant, I brandished the pen like a wand. “Mwahahahaa! Tremble before the Mighty Sparkle Pen of Picshunerry!” I can only hope this made the others as uncomfortable as they’d made me.
When I tried to see myself out, I was genuinely afraid for a moment that they wouldn’t let me leave, they were that insistent. It was only when Pargest saw I was getting angry that he convinced them to back off.
Yet another faction latched onto me almost as soon as I went to find Kir. Pargest’s search for me had spread rumors throughout camp, and pulling up my cloak’s hood wasn’t enough to avoid attention anymore. I didn’t make the mistake of going with this group, but I couldn’t stop them from following me and talking the whole time. They called themselves the One Thread, and went on about how we were all part of one living being and the world would only evolve into its true form once we abandoned the dream of individuality.
“Kir, help,” I hissed when I reached him at the east hub. “These people just keep coming.”
He pulled me away on the double, and after a moment’s brainstorming said, “I know how we can lose them. This way.”
We race-walked through more congested platforms, up and down stairways, and along a few precipitous ledges, our pursuers never far behind. Finally we ducked into a rundown building and made our way into a back room, ignoring some irritable yells. Kir pulled up a grimy trapdoor which, instead of the secret staircase I was expecting, opened onto a whole lot of empty air and what looked like a writhing compost pile way down on the forest floor. He swung himself down through the opening and out of sight, and a moment later I heard him calling me from under the floorboards.
Once I psyched myself up enough to follow, I found myself perched beside him in the struts and branches under the platform. I recoiled when I touched one of the slow-moving mats of leathery, slightly damp folds and flaps that clung to parts of the frame.
“They don’t bite,” he said. “Best not to touch them too much, though. Or stay in one place too long. Are you ready to climb?”
We crossed over to the adjacent tree and made our way up and around to a small, bare scaffold with some stacked lumber and a set of lines running upward and out of sight. We were in a construction site, the latest expansion of the camp that had been put on hold. Kir pulled a pair of harnesses out of a crevice and helped me into one. He drew a length of cord out the back of my harness and clipped it into one of the lines. “Careful with that!” he said when he caught me fiddling with a ring in the front. “Only pull that if you fall. You don’t want your line going tight on you when you’re out on a limb.”
As I followed him up and away from the clamor, I caught a glimpse of the Thread people looking bewildered outside the building we’d just left. We clipped into a horizontal line and moved outward, crossing a few more scaffolds along the way.
“I earn money as a harvester to support my work here,” Kir explained. “We use these for climbing all the time. You must have seen them at work in Brenest, yes? Gathering anisswyn.” He paused to inspect the branches around him and beckoned me closer when he found what he was looking for: a small patch of the same clinging medicinal plant I had seen the men cutting down in the village.
“This is how it grows wild. Look at the needles around it.” The needles closest to the epiphyte were standing out at a different angle, almost like they were forming a mini-scaffold of their own for it to grow on. “These plants used to only feed off the trees and give nothing back. It wasn’t until people started growing anisswyn that the two learned how to live together.”
Botany lesson over, we continued until we reached a rickety platform at the end of the safety lines. Kir pointed out a ladder running up the neighboring tree as we took off our harnesses. “This part is more dangerous. Watch closely.” Some dexterous maneuvering out onto a limb, a calculated leap, and he was on the ladder.
I repressed all recent memories of tree-related peril and made it across with only a brief assist at the end. When we had climbed high enough to see over the trees to our south, the ladder ended in a sort of crow’s nest with a flimsy railing, a roof covering half of it, and a bulky device with a binocular eyepiece mounted on a swivel. It rocked noticeably under both our weight, but Kir looked unconcerned.
“I built this place myself,” he said proudly. “Not many people know about it, but this is the best view in all the edge. Have a look.” He pointed to the binocular instrument.
I looked in the eyepiece and he put my hand on a flexible nub that controlled the focus. “Nice,” I said as sincerely as I could. “That sure is…trees.”
“Do you see the flags?”
After some adjustment, I spotted a series of orange flags tied to the tops of trees some distance south of the slope. “Each of those marks the farthest somebody was able to walk before turning back.”
All the flags looked roughly the same distance away.
“Have you ever seen anything else out there?” He shook his head, leaning cautiously on the railing as he gazed out over the forest.
“Why is this so important to you?”
“I understand there are things we can’t know, not as we are. And I’ve seen evil things done here in the name of learning or of advancement. But some boundaries are meant to be surpassed. I believe everyone on Var is striving for that in their own way.”
“Careful what you wish for,” I said under my breath.
We sat up there, only speaking occasionally, until the last of the western clouds faded from purple to black. The rest of the sky was clear, and I realized that this was the first day it hadn’t rained since my arrival.
“You can spend the night here,” said Kir. “I sometimes do; there’s a blanket in the box over there.”
“Thanks.” I looked back at the lights of camp, where strangers were probably still out searching for me. “My friends wouldn’t believe it. Me, running away from attention.”
“What will you do tomorrow?”
“I can’t stay here. These people all have their own schemes, they all want something from me, but they can’t actually explain what they want me to do. I’m not even convinced any of them know what they’re doing. Forside did, but then he disappeared. That makes me nervous. Having to watch my back for outlaws and cults and stuff all the time makes me nervous.” I flung a hand out toward the edge. “And having that so close by is just as bad. It’s like it’s always there to remind me that I’m stuck. Just like all the rest of you.”
Kir looked like he could have responded at length to all of that, but he only said, “If your mind’s made up, I can get us a ride and take you back to Brenest tomorrow.”
“You’re the best, Kir. Hey, what do you know about a place called So Ameda?”
“The abandoned city? What I’ve heard is that there used to be a place of learning there. Many blame the scholars for the curse or whatever event emptied the place out.”
“You think that’s just ignorance again?” I hoped so, but after today I was markedly less willing to attribute that kind of thinking to pure superstition.
“I’m too ignorant myself to say. But the other thing I’ve heard is that it isn’t completely empty. Rumors vary, but someone at least still lives there.”
Once it was completely dark, I got my first full view of the night sky. I could no longer blame it on trees getting in the way or light from the village drowning them out; there were only a handful of stars above us.
“Where I come from, there are more stars than you can count.”
“I’d love to see them.”
“You know they’re billions of miles away? Right, that doesn’t mean anything to you. Just…take the biggest distance you can think of and multiply it by the biggest number you can think of. If you could fly to one of them, you’d die of old age before you got there. Unless you were going as fast as light.”
“To live in a world so vast…”
“Yeah,” I said softly, “I guess it’s pretty cool. Oh, and you can go anywhere on the planet without having a mental breakdown, too.”
I let Kir break the next silence for a change. “There are people who spend their whole lives studying and searching in hopes of crossing the borders between domains. I don’t know why you are here, but you’ve been given a gift. I hope you realize that.”
“It sure doesn’t feel that way. I’d give it back if that would get me and my sister home. Heck, you could have it if I knew how.”
“I would take it.”
The next morning, I snuck back to say goodbye to Lugo while Kir was off hiring a theradon. (I wasn’t looking forward to another round of tailbone-pummeling, but they were by far the fastest way through this part of the forest.) To my surprise she nodded, retrieved a cloth-wrapped bundle from a cupboard, and handed it to me.
“He told me to give you this if you chose to go it alone.”
I unwrapped the bundle to find the device Forside had demonstrated to me, the “reclaimer of ways.” The gift dampened some of my ire at him for disappearing, though it only raised more questions. There was also a note with it.
My apologies for leaving so abruptly. I hope this keeps you from getting lost again, wherever you’re headed.
Clear it by turning the pointer a full rotation to the left. Line the pointer up with the largest marking on the dial before giving it a new target.
Until we meet again,
“Hang on, I think I almost got it that time. Once more.”
I fell silent again, taking the sum total of my experience of Kir and concentrating it into one name. I assumed it hadn’t been working thus far because I didn’t know him very well yet, but what I had ought to be unique enough. I combined his word with that of the locator in my hands. Kir.
The pointer jumped, wavered, and swung toward him.
“Yesss! Move around, move around!” It followed him as he walked, correcting itself whenever he changed direction and it overshot. “Haha! I win!”
“Incredible,” said Phil from the sidelines.
Now that I knew it worked, I quickly sobered up, reset the locator, and closed my eyes. This next one should be exponentially easier.
The pointer was still. I pushed it, and it rotated a short distance before coming to a stop as normal. I tried again, focusing harder on her. Still nothing.
Even more nothing. I had to stop myself from chucking the useless thing to the ground. “Back to the drawing board,” I muttered as I went over to Phil.
“We don’t need drawing anymore. That at least is progress.”
“Sure.” I draped myself melodramatically over the railing of the outdoor platform where we’d been catching up since my return to Brenest, a ways back into the woods from the main clearing.
Not being a snitch, I had told everyone that I’d met a traveler from Camp Outlook who offered to take me there, which was technically true without implicating the Midnight Cloak Posse. Not everyone bought it, but no one could complain about the results of the trip. Phil and I had rehashed most of our initial Pictionary conversation (in much less time) just to clarify everything. He was still against my continuing on to Curseville, but the fact that I’d come back unscathed and seemingly uncorrupted from the edge at least gave him some pause.
Before I made a decision, he and some others urged me to try meeting again with Aiolef, the woman I’d left hanging at the priest’s house the day before I left. A listener, they called her. They hoped I’d be more comfortable with her now, which possibility I grudgingly conceded. As long as she didn’t try to recruit me into another club, I would hear her out.
We took a roundabout path to the east gathering field this time, across the bridges that skirted the clearing. On one of the platforms along the way we encountered a group of workmen with scrapers, protective gear, and — was that a torch? Phil tried to hurry us past them, but not before I saw what they were trying to remove from the tree. Smeared along its trunk and into the crevices in its bark was something gelatinous, faintly pulsating, and a terribly familiar shade of muddy green.
I spewed every expletive I could think of, both English and the ones I’d picked up at Camp Outlook, and bugged out onto the bridge, only stopping to look back once I was halfway to the next tree. Kir kept his composure, but it was the first time I’d seen him look seriously concerned.
“I thought we were safe up here!” I yelled at Phil. “You guys said those things couldn’t climb trees!”
“For as long as we’ve lived here, they couldn’t.” As much as he might be trying to stay objective, he couldn’t keep the chagrin out of his voice.
“So how long has this been going on?” I was looking frantically around at all the trees to see how far it had spread.
“Not long. We discovered it before we met you.”
“Does the rest of the village know?”
“We’ll have to tell them soon,” he said wearily. “Unfortunately, if we told them right now I suspect some of them would try to blame you.”
“Fantastic. Good thing I won’t be here much longer then! You just settled that little dilemma for me!”
I was at nearly Day One levels of paranoia for the rest of our walk to the field. I got a welcome distraction when three of the kids from the dance practice I’d interrupted on my first visit ran up to meet us. They wanted me to finish teaching them the Macarena.
They had the first few moves down, and I followed along with them, but when I tried to demonstrate the next part I ran up against a wall. The rest of the dance just wouldn’t come to me. After a few minutes of fumbling and muttering to myself while watching every drop of respect for me drain out of the kids’ unimpressed faces, I made up a few random hand movements to placate them. Needless to say, they weren’t fooled.
I tried to brush it off as we continued, chalking up the mental block to the scare I’d just gotten. Still, it was so simple; it was muscle memory. I should have been able to do it in my sleep. I could remember other people doing it; maybe if I concentrated on them it would come back to me?
Before I could find out, another pack of kids came running down the path from the gathering field, frightened and shouting. They swarmed us and reported breathlessly that they had seen recca outside the clearing. Phil just smiled and did his best to calm them down before sending them on their way.
“What was that about?”
“Probably nothing. The recca are shy, but the little ones hear enough fireside stories about them that they see them in every dark thicket.”
“As if I need to ask, are they dangerous?”
“I don’t believe so. They’re clever and elusive, but they’ve never harmed anyone outside of stories. As for stealing and breaking things, now, there may be more truth in those tales.”
“I’ve never heard of them,” said Kir with interest. “Are they new?”
Phil shrugged, looking to the shadowed places on the opposite side of the field. “This place breeds all kinds of newness, more than I can understand at least.”
We approached the house where I’d met with the priest and the listener once before, and sat on a bench outside to wait for her. After a few minutes Kir tapped me on the shoulder and motioned me to look where he and Phil were already staring.
“They really did see them.”
A winged animal was hovering in and out of the shade not fifteen feet away from us. I got a better look at it once it alighted on a root. It was perhaps a yard long in total, with two pairs each of wings and legs, reminding me a little of a giant insect without the exoskeleton. Its face was expressive, though not expressing anything a human might connect with — a complicated face with too many eyes that made me wonder if it was some distant airborne relative of Lickety’s.
A second one flew into view, drifting even closer to us. They were obviously aware of us, but didn’t seem hostile. Not, I realized, that I would know what their version of hostility looked like. I caught the closer one looking at me and said, “Please tell me you don’t have stingers.” It ignored me and drifted toward its companion.
“Beautiful, aren’t they?” Aiolef had approached silently and was watching them with us.
“On the inside, maybe,” I said.
“Exactly. It’s good to see you again, Reid. Even better to speak with you.”
The men excused themselves, she took a seat next to me, and the recca fluttered away shortly after.
I promised myself I would be nice this time. “Sorry I ran out on you before.”
“I don’t blame you. You’re out of place, you’re upset, you’ve had a chaotic welcome to our forest.”
“If people respect you so much, can you tell them I’m not dangerous?”
“I wouldn’t dare tell them that. But I have tried to assure them you don’t mean harm.”
“I don’t think it’s working.”
“I believe you could find a way to show them yourself in time.” She paused to gather her thoughts, letting the medley of bug-, bird-, and plant-song fill in the silence. “From what little I know of the web, the thread, the pattern, whatever you want to call it, you don’t fit into it for good or ill. What you are, or what you could be, is an agent of change.”
“Like you need any more of that.”
“It’s what our world was made for, and we do our best to help it along. Despite what you may have heard, we don’t just wait for changes to unfold. We can shape and guide them.
“You’ve heard about our odeana, yes? The greater part of their bodies lies underground. Each part you see is connected to others by an intricate web that might spread for miles, completely unseen.”
I bit my tongue. You guys only made a big deal of those mushrooms because they keep the shush-whatevers off. And they probably won’t even do that for much longer.
“In the same way, every living and nonliving thing is connected by a web that can’t easily be seen, one that constantly seeks to grow and develop into something greater.”
“But you can see it?” I hoped that didn’t sound as sarcastic out loud as it did in my head.
“Oh, none of us ever sees more than a fraction of a fraction. But the point is this: all of us who know and choose have the power to unfold more of it. Or turn parts of it in on themselves, corrupting them. Every right action advances it, every wrong one twists it. Every well-made offering strengthens it, every misguided one weakens it.”
She pointed toward the sanctuary and the enclosure beyond it, the space walled off by trees. “There are places where the pattern concentrates, where the potential for change is greater than elsewhere. Call it a focus if you will. And beyond those trees is one of them. We bring our offerings there, the products of our work and our efforts to better the world, so that they can become something new and make their mark on the pattern.”
“So what’s a ‘misguided offering?’”
She frowned. “For one, there are still some who send in living humans, believing it’s a stronger offering than a human life well lived. Some seek out such places hoping to transform themselves into something more powerful. For the ones who come out alive, whether they’re revered or shunned, it never ends happily.”
I thought of the used-to-be-person glaring at me from its cage at Camp Outlook. Whatever these people thought they were accomplishing by sacrificing to whatever made that, I wanted no part of it.
“No offense, but why are you telling me this? You already said I don’t fit in.”
“You are part of a stronger, more complete pattern, the kind we hope to grow our own little world into someday. You carry it with you everywhere and it affects all around you.”
“I’ve heard something like this before. You think I could help you make the right kind of change.”
“In a few words, yes. You’ve seen what Var becomes when the web is distorted. If you choose to, you could see it become more beautiful.”
I needed to nip this in the bud. “Miss Aiolef, I’m grateful to everyone here for their help. And I don’t mind being important, believe me. But I just don’t have time to get involved in…all this.” I waved at the sanctuary and the unknown place. “There’s only two things I need to do, and right now they’re looking like more than enough work on their own.”
She stood up and offered me a handshake as aggressive as the ones I’d given out when I first met everyone. “I thought you might say that. I wish you and your sister all the best, though I can’t offer you guidance. The two of you are caught up in threads reaching further than anything I know. Listen to them if you can.”
“I need to go,” I vented to Kir when I found him. “I don’t know how anyone can stand living like this. Never mind acting like there’s some grand plan they can follow when everything’s always changing right under them.”
He didn’t bother arguing with me in such a mood. “If you ask around, you should be able to find out when the next merchants are coming through and get a ride with them. That would be the easiest way.”
Something had been on my mind since last night that I’d held off on asking him until now. “You said you wanted to see the sky full of stars. But you haven’t asked to come with me.”
“You have enough people asking things of you.”
“Mm-hmm. Hey, do you want to come with me?”
He laughed. “Why choose me?”
“’Cause you didn’t ask.”
“You have some good instincts, Reid. But what’s your plan?”
“All I know for sure is I’m done with this forest. What do you think?”
“If you’re still looking for someone to tell you what to do, I’m not that man.”
“Fine, fine.” I sat down against a tree to think, after first checking it obsessively for anything slimy. I pondered my homemade map while Kir waited.
The overwhelming otherness that I thought I’d held at bay by making friends and learning to communicate was all rushing back. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to get away from it. But in that moment, I felt that wherever I went next couldn’t be more unnerving than the Effoc.
I stabbed the Mighty Sparkle Pen down on So Ameda. “Let’s see what this curse is all about.”