Open sky at last. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed it. I didn’t have to climb a tree for it anymore, just lie back on the nearest bale of anisswyn in the wagon and look up. The plants made a decent cushion too, once you got used to the sharp, sinus-clearing scent. I was currently watching the massive creature floating just below the clouds to the north of us like a colony of translucent misshapen balloons. It was only when it flapped the occasional feathery flagellum that you could tell it was alive.
We’d come across less overall weirdness out here on the plains, though some of what we had seen was pretty spectacular. The aforementioned clouds were leftovers from that morning, when we’d spotted a storm like nothing I or even some of the others had ever seen pummeling the range of hills on the horizon. The drivers almost decided to turn around and seek shelter, since we were already feeling gale-force winds and couldn’t tell whether it would shift our way. We ended up halting for a while and watching in silence until the line of dancing vortices, black clouds, and lightning changed direction and moved out of sight.
It was our second day on the road, the stocky quadrupedal draft mammals being built for strength not speed, and we were due to pass by So Ameda before long. They were going to drop Kir and me off within walking distance rather than approach the city themselves.
I struggled at first to come up with road trip games that I could do with Kir. The usual storytelling games were less fun without Esther commandeering them, not to mention a limited mutual vocabulary. A surprising number of my Would You Rathers were still applicable, but most of them were also disgusting and he tired of them quickly. In the end we spent a lot of time telling stories about our respective homes and guessing which ones were made up. That was how I learned, among other things, that he didn’t know what seasons were.
“How do you keep track of time besides counting days? You don’t even have a moon. What is it, the stars?”
He laughed. “Stars don’t move.”
“Yeah they — I mean, what do I know, maybe these ones don’t.”
“The pulse of the earth changes, and the living world responds. That’s what a turning is. Earth doesn’t have those?”
At some point even he needed a break from asking questions about Earth and passed the time talking to our driver instead, leaving me bored and restless. When we came over a ridge and saw the faded outskirts of a city off to our right I whooped in relief, and also to mask some of the anxiety squeezing my insides now that we were actually there.
Minutes later, the two of us were standing alone at the turnoff for the dirt road we would be taking. The signpost had fallen over or been knocked down and there were weeds everywhere, but judging by its deep ruts, the road had once been busy. Kir was the first to shoulder his pack and start walking. He was carrying the bulk of our supplies, since I was running out of room in my backpack. We had enough food for two days in addition to whatever we could forage. If we hadn’t found or been found by anything by then, there was supposed to be another group passing by with whom we could hitch a ride.
We were in the city literally before we knew it. It had no clear boundary, I simply looked up after a spell of walking and noticed some desolate buildings on either side of us. As they grew denser we saw that some structures were in better shape than others. Some had entirely collapsed under the weather and encroaching plant life (and whatever kind of life it was that made the walls of one house we passed look like they were breathing). Others looked sturdy enough that Kir said they’d be good places to camp for the night if need be.
I was happy to let him lead the way. Though I meant what I said about taking him with me if and when I found a way to leave Var, I had my own motives too. I liked to think I would have had the courage to come here alone, but I couldn’t fully convince myself. Despite his professed ignorance of this region compared to the Effoc or the seaside where he’d grown up, he knew what to look out for immeasurably better than I did. He warned me which roaming animals to steer clear of, including some surprisingly cute little scaly wall-climbers: ”They get much less pleasant when there’s a whole swarm of them, and there will be.” He even found us snacks before long in the form of some roadside plants with crunchy, savory stems and roots, and a vine with a few clusters of sour fruit.
What he couldn’t do, what neither of us could do, was navigate. We only became aware of the phenomenon gradually because it was a subtle one. The streets, when we could even discern them, weren’t laid out in a grid, so we couldn’t just walk in a straight line. And after a few turns we would lose track of where we were headed relative to where we’d been.
“There! I just saw it for a second, but it flickered again, I swear.”
“I still don’t see it. Maybe if the sun goes behind the clouds again…otherwise we’ll have to wait until evening.”
We were on the roof of a three-story building trying to plot out a course, and I had noticed a faint, shifting light in the corner of my eye. It came from a low-lying section of the city, behind a complex that was either a single labyrinthine building or a bunch of interconnected ones. Kir was right, it was too bright out to get a good look at it. However, the complex itself stood out enough that we decided it was a worthwhile destination.
“We’ve been here before.”
“There’s no way we went in a circle! Are you sure?”
It was around this point that I got paranoid about never being able to find our way out. We wasted over an hour proving to ourselves that it was possible before I was willing to continue exploring.
“Isn’t there something you can do with your wayfinder?”
“I thought about that, but what would we target? Do you see anything out there specific enough to put its own word to?”
“There’s no way to use it without knowing something’s name?”
“If there is, Forside didn’t tell me…You know, thinking about it just now, even if I had to target just ‘So Ameda,’ I don’t know if there’d be enough information for it to work.”
It was like there just wasn’t enough of a city there for us to grasp.
“Are there earthquakes here?”
“Not that I know of. Why?”
“Have you been seeing those bumps in the road?” By “bumps” I meant low ridges, some of them running a long way before either petering out or joining up with others. I backtracked until I found the most recent one I’d seen. “We were going alongside this one for a while.”
“Are you sure it’s not a different one?”
“Yeah.” This time I really was certain. I remembered how it zigzagged.
At this point we were desperate enough for something we could easily follow that we walked along the ridge by unspoken agreement. Soon it merged with another and changed direction, but soon after that the street we were on was blocked, not by debris but by what looked like a deliberate barricade.
“Could we try going around it?”
“We would just get lost again.”
I groaned and sat down with my legs crossed in the middle of the street. After a few minutes, I got bored enough of sulking to look more closely at our surroundings, in particular at what looked like a sinkhole in the shadow of a nearby house.
“Kir? Have you seen any other holes like that one there?”
He gave up on inspecting the barricade and looked where I was pointing. “Now that you mention it, yes.”
“Yeah… Maybe I’m crazy, but I think the others I saw were near the bump too.”
We approached the hole, which was wide enough at its mouth for a large man to fit through easily. Kir shone the flashlight inside to reveal a short drop leading to a low tunnel. My first fleeting thought was of Bugs Bunny cartoons, and my next lingering thoughts were of a dozen unspeakably worse things. “Oh no. Is this something’s burrow? No thank you.”
“I wonder…” He stroked his beard, then crouched down, ignoring my remonstrations, and slipped into the hole. Moments later he called back to me, “It widens out. Come look.”
His attempts to talk me down were fruitless at first, but after he’d been down there for a few minutes without being eaten, I decided the giant carnivorous worms might be willing to hold off a few minutes longer while I checked the place out. I held my pepper spray at the ready and climbed in. After crawling a short way, I descended a small ledge into a passage where I could walk upright. The walls were damp, the floor ankle-deep mud in places, and the smell was distinctly organic. I saw a few odd formations on the walls that might or might not have been living, but didn’t stop to find out. When I caught up to Kir’s voice and the glow from the flashlight, he was at the mouth of a chamber twice as wide as the tunnel behind us.
“Look,” he said, shining the light downward. “Someone’s been here before us.” There was a crude, half-sunken walkway made of planks running along the floor. It came to an end a short way into the chamber before us, where a puddle took up most of the floor except for a strip along the left-hand wall. Kir stepped out onto the strip and put a hand on the wall for balance. “I don’t think this is a burrow. There’s — ”
A subtle rumbling cut him off. The section of muddy wall ahead of him bulged slightly, then half slipped, half flowed several feet inward. He jumped back, and I bolted down the tunnel with him close behind, the swinging flashlight beam giving me just enough light to make it back to the entrance hole.
“Well then,” I panted, “lesson learned. Even if nothing eats us down there, we’ll get caved in.”
“No, listen! I was saying it’s not a burrow. I think what we’ve found is an earth heart.”
“A living cave system. I didn’t think I’d ever see one. They aren’t intelligent, but they do react. As long as we’re careful what we touch, we should be all right.”
“Wouldn’t you rather get lost above ground than underground?”
“Were we lost? Tell me, how did we get back here? The exact steps.”
“We…okay, we took a left coming out of the big room with the moving wall of death, then straight for a bit past like three more openings, then we took a right at those things like big boxes of french fries, then up the ledge and the small tunnel.”
“Could you give me directions that detailed for anywhere we’ve been up here? This might be why someone decided to use the cave as a pathway.”
In the end, he had enough of a point to convince me. I wasn’t willing to risk it without some assurance of finding our way back, though. After some experimenting with the locator, I was satisfied that some of Esther’s things were unique enough on Var to be suitable targets. I emptied her pencil case and tucked it into a crevice near the hole, then primed the locator with Spacemaker.
“That should do it,” I said after a quick test. “All right, lead on.”
Our journey through the cave was mostly uneventful. I was too on edge most of the time to do any marveling at nature’s wonders, but Kir was taking it all in, pointing out to me the subterranean plants and animals living in symbiosis with the earth creature. There were spots where we couldn’t avoid touching them or parts of the cave, and we froze more than once when walls or floors shifted around us. It was that kind of movement that had broken up the wooden path in places. But my fears of the tunnels closing in and digesting us turned out to be groundless.
Every now and then the path would branch off into a side cavern with a markedly different atmosphere from the “earth heart:” dead, still air and a stale smell. A peek into these with the flashlight showed glimpses of man-made, buried structures as deserted as the streets above. We decided to leave them alone for now.
We checked each other periodically to see how much of our recent path we could remember, and the results were encouraging. Even though we didn’t really know where we were going, it felt like we were making progress for the first time.
At last, that progress was rewarded with light. The final cavern opened onto a deep, verdant hollow with steep sides. At the top of the slope to our left was a sheer wall of the same sandstone color as the complicated building/s I’d seen from our vantage point earlier. It looked like the cave system had led us straight to it.
It was chilly in the shade at the bottom, and a thin mist clung to the ground. Farther down the hollow, it grew deeper and the mist grew thicker until it rounded a bend that we couldn’t see beyond. But we only noted that in passing before turning our attention to the ramp.
The dominant feature of the hollow was a fully enclosed stone walkway coming out of the wall at the top. It descended in four segments, laid out like a triangular staircase, to a passageway at the bottom that had half crumbled, leaving it wide open.
We did our due diligence and shouted up at the wall for a bit in case anyone was home. Getting no response as expected, we ventured into the opening and up the ramp. The walls had window slits spaced closely enough to keep it decently lit, and apart from some creepers here and there, the whole thing was in better shape that just about any structure we’d seen so far. The only downside was —
“How high does this thing go?”
“Okay, so it’s not just me.”
“That’s at least five landings we passed. There should only be three.”
I looked out through a slit and went cold all over. We were still only one landing above ground level.
The instinct was drilled into me by now: make sure we can backtrack. I ran back down, almost ricocheting off the walls of five landings, six landings, seven, before giving it up. Looking outside sometimes showed us to be one segment up, sometimes two or three, but never anything else. When Kir caught up with me, we did the only other thing we could think to do, even though we were both pretty sure it was hopeless: turned around and continued climbing. Sure, the second and third loops we completed didn’t get us any closer to the top, but how did we know the fourth one wouldn’t? If we turned back or stopped, we’d never find out.
That kind of thinking could only keep us going for so long. We moved on to searching for alternative ways out of the ramp. The walls and ceiling were solid, the slits too small, and the passage devoid of anything we could use. It was a trap. The whole blighted city was a trap that we’d willingly sauntered into, no matter how many people had warned us. After all my worries about being eaten, that would have been a mercy compared to going out of our minds and dying of thirst in here.
“Tell me you’ve seen one of these before, Kir. Tell me you heard stories from your grandpa or someone about how to get out of them, closing our eyes, walking backward, just tell me anything —”
“Do you know what this is?”
“Then too late!”
“WHY HAVE YOU COME?” An inhuman voice, deep and eerily distorted, made us both jump. There was no echo, and it seemed to be coming from every direction at once.
“Who are you?”
“Let us out of here!”
“What is this place?”
“WHY HAVE YOU COME?”
In tacit acknowledgment that we weren’t in a position to ask questions, we stopped yelling. The voice stayed silent, waiting for our answer.
“Because I’m desperate,” I said. Might as well be honest. “I don’t belong in this domain and I need someone to teach me how to get out. They said we could find knowledge here.”
“For as long as I can remember,” said Kir, “I have wanted to explore a part of the world that I thought might never be within my grasp. And now it is.”
“So please just let us — ”
“WHY DO WE PURSUE THE UNKNOWN?”
“Maybe because no one told us it would turn out to be a death trap and a short answer test!”
Kir shushed me and took a pause to reflect. “Because the known never satisfies,” he said at length. “The chance of finding more is worth the fear.”
“WHAT STOPS THOSE WHO SEEK KNOWLEDGE FROM UNDERSTANDING THE WHY OF WHAT THEY LEARN?”
“Can you repeat that?” I asked. The voice obliged.
I thought there should be any number of valid answers to this question, which didn’t seem fair. But it did remind me of Forside, of something he had told me in passing during our lessons.
I don’t pretend to fully understand the why of it. I deal in expediency.
I knew what he meant by that because I was cheating, but the right English word eluded me. I’d have to paraphrase. “They only deal in…obtaining the results they need.” Awkwardly put, but it didn’t get us vaporized.
“WHAT IS IT THAT CROSSES THE BOUNDARIES BETWEEN DOMAINS?”
If we knew that, we wouldn’t be here! All I knew were some hazy circumstances around my own crossing. My mind went back to Forside again. What was it I’d overheard him saying to his friend when they were examining the Links?
“Bonds?” I said. “Purpose?”
A short pause, then:
“FINAL QUESTION. IF YOU WERE FREE OF THIS LOOP RIGHT NOW, WHAT WOULD YOU DO?”
Get the hell out of So Ameda forever. Duh. That was my immediate thought. But I went on thinking. I’d almost given up a couple of times today already, and I hadn’t been in as much danger as I feared.
The truth was, nothing in this city had turned out to be quite as bad as it looked at first.
Kir’s rawboned face was set as hard, and his eyes as intense, as I’d ever seen them. “I’d keep searching,” he said.
“I would too. Screw your traps and riddles, I need answers.”
There was a longer pause this time.
“EXTRA FINAL QUESTION. WHAT DO you think of the voice? I’m trying out a new variant and I’m not the best judge of my own performance.”
The distorted growl cut out and the speaker went on seamlessly in the cheerful reedy voice of a middle-aged woman. It was no longer coming from everywhere, but from around the corner at normal volume.
We peered around the next landing to see an archway at the top of the ramp, giving us a glimpse of open sky and more buildings beyond it. Just below it was standing an almost comically unremarkable-looking woman with a warm smile and blond hair in a loose bun, a touch overweight, wearing a simple dress and satchel. There was a hexagonal mesh box in her hand that reminded me vaguely of certain early photos of microphones. She lifted an eyebrow, awaiting an answer to her last question.
“Intimidating,” I managed.
“Wonderful. Not that I enjoy intimidating people — ” she failed to hide a satisfied little smirk when she said this, however — “but a lady has TO TAKE PRECAUTIONS.” She held the box up to her mouth to project her demon PA voice one more time, then beckoned us up the ramp. “Right this way.”
I was too upset for my usual first impressions protocol as we followed her through the archway. “Our turn for questions now. Who are you?”
She turned to face us, walking backward like a tour guide. “I am the caretaker of the Institute Holistic. Semelis Baring at your service — everyone calls me Sem. You?”
“Reid, Kir, I’m so glad you made it here.”
Even up close, the architecture of the Institute Holistic was disorienting. I still couldn’t tell exactly where one building ended and another began. Our walk took us through narrow alleys, up staircases built into exterior walls, across a rooftop leading to a bridge without railings, that turned into a covered colonnade, that turned into an interior passage, all without interruption.
“I apologize for the reception,” she said once we entered the grounds. “This Institute was built to advance the understanding of all peoples, but with the city in its current state, we can’t have just anyone strolling in. And I wanted to get to know you just a little first. The superstitious never get past the streets, the treasure hunters usually get sidetracked in the buried ruins, and the violent end up tangling with the nokshau.” She pointed an approving pair of fingers at us. “Only the inquisitive get this far.”
Kir looked sick. “There are nokshau here?”
“Good, you missed them. I respect you more already. We do also get the occasional — ” she tapped the center of her forehead to indicate mental illness — “who can’t find their way out, so I have to go and help them. Always makes me sad.”
“I am so confused,” I said. “Why couldn’t we find our way here just by looking? Is that one of your ways to keep people out? ‘Cause have you ever heard of a thing called doors?”
“No,” she said more somberly. “That isn’t intentional. Measures like the loop are one thing, taking advantage of some unique conditions here on campus, but as for your disorientation outside… Let me put it this way: what happens when a city stops being a city?”
“Is that another riddle? I think I’ve heard this one.”
“I should say, when it stops acting as a city. That word means a relation, you know, not a physical construction. A unity of people and place. Without the people sustaining it in its meaning, it breaks down into nothing more than disconnected pieces. The degradation often begins long before a place becomes uninhabited, but in this case it happened much more suddenly.”
“But not here,” Kir observed.
“The only reason parts of this campus remain as intelligible and navigable as they are is, well…”
“Not to boast, but yes. I maintain its reason for being, not to mention physical upkeep to the extent I’m able. Beyond these walls, So Ameda is now more alive and whole under the ground than above it. I hope you appreciated our earth heart, by the way. Definitely the local highlight, after the Institute itself of course. It must have begun growing before the collapse, but it only flourished afterward, when regrettably few ever got the chance to see it.”
I had been too overloaded since her appearance to really think about it, but I was conversing more easily with Sem than with anyone since Forside. She must have had her own extensive vocabulary of inwords beyond what I’d acquired myself, maybe even beyond Forside’s.
“Where are you from?” I interrupted her.
“Alopal. In the eastern foothills of the mountains. But the real question is, where are you from?”
“Earth. Yes, it’s in another domain. No, I can’t give you three wishes.”
“Well, that depends. You don’t know what I wish for yet.”
“If you’re from Var, how do you know so many inwords?”
“Come now. The Institute gathers and connects knowledge from anywhere in existence we can obtain it. It wouldn’t be much use if we didn’t employ every technique available for natives like me to absorb it. Meaning is our business here, after all.”
“You keep saying we, our. Are there others here?”
“I count one, two, three of us, friend Kir.” We passed through a courtyard into what looked like a residential wing. She ran her fingers along a thin tube mounted on the wall, lighting it up as she passed. “Welcome to the faculty, by the way.”
She stopped at the end of a wide corridor that looked like it had once been a dormitory. “Why don’t we sit down for some refreshment and talk things over. I’m sure you’ll want to clean that mud off yourselves first, though.”
“We can talk now.”
“I was being polite. You aren’t sitting down in my kitchen like that.”
“Please, Sem, we’ve been through a lot today and everything just raises more questions. Can you give us something?”
“The one thing everyone learns here whether they like it or not,” she said with compassionate firmness, “is how to live with unanswered questions. The cosmos is too big even for the mind’s appetite. I promise you can live with yours long enough to get clean.”
“Be watchful,” Kir whispered as we headed off to the room she pointed out to us. “This could be a deception.”
“Okay, but I’m pretty sure it’s just how she talks.” Her welcome spiel certainly seemed rehearsed, but the longer we spent with her, the more I got the sense that she was being transparent. Rocky introduction aside, I thought the caretaker and I just might get along.
“Let’s start with what you do know,” said Sem, tapping her mug thoughtfully, her speech slower and more measured now that she was no longer in tour guide or Wizard of Oz mode.
We were sitting around a small table in the corner of a kitchen that had once served many people in the adjacent dining hall. Kir and I had cleaned ourselves and gotten the majority of the mud off our clothes before tucking into the soup she served us.
Her first attempt at explaining things had been way too technical. Even if we both had the necessary inwords, the ideas were going over my head. When I tried to apologize for my ignorance she said, “No, it’s my fault. I’m a scholar, not a teacher. It’s frustrating for us both, I know. Someday we’ll all understand each other clearly without all this roundabout speech and symbolism.”
“I could get behind that.”
Now, having heard my story and gotten a better feel for my comprehension level, Sem was ready to start over.
“Your world is a stable one, at least by comparison. Word and matter more rigidly bound, mind and body more interdependent, the properties of all things subject to physical laws in their final state. You’ll have noticed that things are more flexible here.
“A good word for our kind of domain might be incomplete — but always striving for completion, I should add. We believe this completion takes a different form in each domain. You might begin thinking about it in light of what you already know of this one.
“You met with quite the range of beliefs out by the edge, but did you notice what they all had in common?” I shook my head. “Hope. A hope that in the future, Var will be transformed into more than what it is now. The Immanent Flux call it the all-turning, the One Thread call it the world’s awakening, the Lavintai simply the beginning. For all their differences, no one can escape the knowledge that our world is not yet what it could be.
“Var’s development finds unique expression in life, its evolution and interconnection. The Lavintai have a useful symbol that I see from your notes you’ve already encountered.” She took out some paper and a pair of styli. “The Ostiel Crest. There’s a good reason it’s their favorite. Watch.” She drew the pattern step by step for me.
“Sentience.” The two arcs she added here almost made it look like a weird eye. “Notice how each stage encompasses the others now.”
“Transcendence.” With a flourish, she crossed the lines and extended them all the way to the limit of the page.
That word had dubious associations back in Morrow Glen. I wasn’t prepared to buy all of this just yet.
“Under the right conditions and in the right relationship to other creatures, a species can advance to the next stage beyond it,” Kir explained. “A nonliving creature could become living, a living one could become sentient, and so on.”
“You saw a perfect example of that today underground.”
“This sounds crazy, but what about a storm? We saw something really wild on the way here.”
“You saw that too? Yes, there are a few living weather systems. That one cycles back to the plains every few turnings. I hope it doesn’t come this way, but it is a glorious sight, isn’t it? You’re having quite the momentous day. Let me show you one more.” She took an instrument like a thin poker and went to a compartment by the stove. “It’s even been known to happen to things like water or fire.” She carefully opened the compartment, which exuded a red glow, stuck the poker in, and drew out one end of a licking tendril of flame that twisted itself around the shaft.
“This little one has been here almost as long as I have. I don’t let it grow too large, but as long as I keep it fed at a certain level, no one knows how long it could live.” She pulled a gob of some waxy plant matter from a drawer and skewered it on the poker. The flame quickly moved to engulf it and the glow changed to bright blue as it consumed the fuel in a matter of seconds.
“Enough showing off,” she went on, returning to her chair. “We humans serve as caretakers of the process — at least, we’re supposed to. You have some idea by now of how wrong it can go, but the ideal is that when creatures fulfill their own natures and attain the appropriate balance among one another, every advancement brings Var as a whole closer to what it’s meant to become.”
“But evolution doesn’t have a purpose,” I pushed back. “I’ve learned about this, we have a slower version of it on Earth. It just happens.”
“Purpose can be a confusing word in any language. Shall we say reason? The reason each thing has for being and acting as itself, what it tends toward by its nature even without knowing it. After all, what we are is defined in part by what we can become. Potential: you know the concept?”
As in, “Mr. and Mrs. Emberley, we just want to see your son living up to all that potential he has.” Yes, I was plenty familiar with that one.
“Think of Var, and all the domains like it, as being defined mostly by potential. The potential to one day become a stable, actualized world like yours.”
“To become a world like mine?” I was struggling to keep my head above all these implications. “That’s not how my world started. There was this big bang and it all just expanded out of nowhere.”
She and Kir looked both puzzled and fascinated, but she went on, “We will certainly have to talk more about that later, but I said nothing about how it started. Even if it happened as you say, that doesn’t mean your domain couldn’t have coalesced from one like this.”
“That doesn’t make sense. How would you go from something like this to an explosion and a bunch of random…atoms and stuff?” I suddenly wished I had spent less time waging covert rubber band battles in science class. “What would be the point?”
“I see. Do your people only consider causality in terms of time?”
“I can’t speak for them, but I don’t consider causality. I barely know what it means.”
“Now would be an excellent time to start.”
“Do you have some ice water I can stick my head in first?”
“That won’t be necessary,” she chuckled. “We can move on.”
“Has anyone like me ever been here before?” I asked.
She got a faraway look, a sad one, it seemed to me. “Since I joined there has only been one, twenty-four turnings ago. A young man named Strand, older than you, but not by much. Still just a boy, really…”
“And was he able to leave?”
“He was.” She hesitated like she was wary of saying much more. “We’ll get back to him in due time.”
“I’ve had people try and explain why they’re so interested in me, but none of it really made sense.”
“Let me see.” She sighed. “I’m not one for physical science, but it might be the easiest way for you to approach this concept right now. Are there mountains where you live?”
“Have you ever climbed one with a closed bottle or container?”
“And when you open it at the top the contents squirt everywhere and make a mess? Yeah, I’ve been there. If it’s not closed tightly enough it might even pop open on its own.”
“Yes. Move it from high pressure to low pressure, and it reacts, sometimes violently. It happens all the time in natural processes. Heat and cold, height and depth, fullness and emptiness — wherever there is a difference, action can take place. Now here’s the point. Another kind of difference manifests whenever anything is displaced into a domain more or less actual than its own.”
“Forside said something similar. I…think I kind of get it. Maybe. And this lady in Brenest said that I was an agent of change. Is that what she meant?”
“Yes. Every potential needs an agent. And some agency is more potent than others.”
“The ‘displaced’ kind. So I’m guessing that’s what whoever kidnapped my sister wanted.”
“Unfortunately, you’re probably right. Consider how interested people became in you once they learned where you came from. The idea of other domains and displaced travelers is just rumor and legend to most of the world. Even here at the Institute, there were scholars in the past who thought a world like yours was only theoretical. There are those who would try to get into your good graces, even some poor souls who might try worshiping you. Less dangerously, there are at least as many who would shun you out of fear.”
“Tell me something I don’t know. But you haven’t explained what they’re afraid of.”
“You’ve seen a little of what displaced artifacts can do. What really shapes the course of a domain, however, is choice. Try and imagine what a displaced mind, able to make its own choices…actually, never mind that.” She got up with a sudden resolve. “You don’t need to imagine it. Come with me. It’s time I showed you why so many believe this city to be cursed.”
We strode after her down several flights of stairs and into a tangle of darker corridors. “Be patient,” she said. “Even I get mixed up when I have to come through here.” She did in fact take several wrong turns along the way. This section of the building was dusty and in considerably worse shape than the others we’d seen, with sizable cracks in some of the walls and floors. At a certain point in the final stretch the light tubes just gave up, leaving us to walk in darkness before stopping at an arch with a cold breeze flowing through it.
My unease jumped five notches up the scale when I stepped through the arch. I felt a similar resistance to when I’d followed Esther through the maintenance door at Newcastle Plaza, an age ago.
We entered one last downward-sloping corridor that took us out into the open, where Kir and I stood dumbstruck on a stone porch that was more like a pier, protruding out from the side of a huge pit.
Above us, the eroded walls sloped up to ground level at an angle that looked climbable, interrupted here and there around the circumference by jagged fissures. Below us, the walls descended a short distance in a sheer drop before they vanished into the slowly swirling mist that filled the abyss. It was lit up sporadically from within by pulses of subtly color-changing light, the same light I’d noticed from a distance when we were lost in the city streets.
Behind and on either side of us, the walls of the Institute Holistic had collapsed. A few other portions of the building hung over the pit like our porch; the rest was like a messy cross-section. In front of us, a crumbling stone staircase with wrought metal railings stretched improbably outward and downward.
Sem started down it, Kir followed, and I held out as long as I could before my don’t-look-like-a-sissy instinct fully kicked in. After descending a few of the steps I began to feel them bob slightly under my weight, kind of like walking across those floating foam blocks at a water park.
“Uh, Sem? Is this safe?”
Kir gave me a look. “As safe as anything else we’ve done today.”
“You may have to reconsider your definition of safety from now on,” Sem called back. “But we’re all right for now. I’ve had bigger visitors than you two down here. Hold the railing if it helps you.”
It didn’t help my nerves, or my creeping sense of unreality. We get used to solid surfaces pushing back on us in a very particular way, and it threw my brain for a loop that the metal felt inconsistent in how hard and how soon it pushed back. Almost immediately I noticed it in the ground as well. It was worse than the tricks a fever can play on the sense of touch.
Gaps appeared between the steps, and they grew wider as we descended. By the time we reached a landing, the staircase was a chain of blocks strung together by the railings alone. Sem hopped over one more gap to the last block of the landing, from which a few more steps hung down before the whole thing ended in midair.
“Damn,” I breathed, craning my neck out as far over the edge as I dared.
“I certainly hope not.”
“No, I mean…never mind. What are we looking at?”
“I call it a rent. There used to be a whole wing of the Institute here, and a section of the neighboring community.”
“What’s at the bottom?”
“You’re assuming there is one.”
“Has anyone gone down and tried to find it?”
“If this was the kind of hole one could just climb into and out of, I wouldn’t have the Institute and the city all to myself. What caused this cut deeper than just moving some matter out of the way.”
“You hear that, Kir? Don’t get any ideas.” He nodded, but I could tell he’d already gotten them.
I let go of the railing to cross the landing for a different view. “So you’re saying — HAA! WHOA!” My right foot slipped out from under me and I staggered, losing my footing on the left as well and falling close to the edge. I flung an arm out and wrapped it around the nearest railing post before I could slide much farther.
I ran a shaky hand over the stone. It wasn’t wet.
Kir gave me a hand up, making sure to keep a tight grip on the railing himself. “I’m sorry,” said Sem once I was back on my feet and compulsively scuffing my shoe to make sure friction was still on duty. “I meant to tell you sooner that things may not behave quite as they should when you get close to an anomaly like this. I think that’s enough of a demonstration for today.”
“So what happened here?” I asked when we were back on terra firma, though I thought I could guess.
“To be blunt, someone like you happened.”
I sat down at the edge of the gaping hole in the world and let that sink in. “You’re saying I could do something like this? That’s why people are scared of me?”
“No. I’m saying no one knows what you or your sister could do. Least of all you.”