I emptied my bucket into a rooftop cistern, trying to ignore the things I saw moving through the murk within, then descended a ladder to refill it at a spigot on the floor below. Like at the guest quarters in Brenest, the plumbing had been modified from the vascular system of some great plant, which took its time filling the bucket in rhythmic squirts.
The roof was almost entirely covered in a mat of long, broad leaves. These plants carpeted several of the larger buildings, and according to Sem, supplied parts of the campus with energy in a way she admittedly didn’t quite comprehend. The cistern was used to water them, and filling it was one of the chores we had to finish that morning before we could begin investigating how to get me off Var.
After a few more trips, Sem returned to check my progress. “That’s enough for now, thank you. Since we’re both here, why don’t you help me get some food for this evening?” She rolled up her sleeve and plunged an arm into the tank.
“Eeugh,” I said when she pulled it out moments later with a squirming little ball of tentacles attached.
“Don’t make that face, they’re delicious.” She shook the thing off into the empty bucket. “I wanted to make something nice now that I have guests. We’ll need about twenty more for three people. Just move your fingers around to attract them.”
“Maybe I can switch with Kir, I’m sure he’s into seafood.”
“I’ll get you a net if you’re frightened.”
“I’m not frightened. Fine.” I dipped my right hand in and gave a tentative wiggle. “You know, I went through a marine biology phase when I was little. Sea life. Then I saw a little movie called Jaws.”
“You used to enjoy learning about living things until…?”
I flinched and yanked my hand out of the water when something rubbery and tickling latched onto it. “Until I learned more about the ones that could kill me.”
“Very good! There, scrape him off on the edge if you need to.”
“That reminds me. Have you ever heard of animals crossing over?”
“Not on their own, but it could happen for other reasons. Why?”
“I remember seeing a weird-looking animal near the place where we crossed, and you guys are up to your nostrils in weird everything, so I was wondering if it came from here. Ground animal, six legs? Possibly likes jumping on people from bushes but not killing them?”
“You’d have to be much more specific.”
“It’s fine. I’m more interested in what’s his face, how he crossed over. Did you know him?”
“That’s the strange thing. I think I was the only friend he had in this place, but I never got many details from him. The senior scholars took up most of his time every day in the Transmigration wing. A sub-archivist like me wouldn’t have been allowed to socialize with him, except that we got talking one day when he escaped from them to do some research on his own.
“Obviously I was curious, but my superiors forbade me to ask about the work they were doing. For his part, he was tired of talking about it, tired of talking about the place he needed to reach. Discouraged. Eventually I realized he just needed emotional support and stopped prying. Most of our conversation was comparatively trivial.”
“It sounds like the wing they were working in would be a good place to start looking,” I said once we were on our way to the kitchen with our bucket of writhing dinner.
“I would agree, but I’m afraid you’ve already seen what’s left of it.”
“When did — oh. Oh. So wait, how are we supposed to find anything if that whole wing got blown up?”
“All things are connected. It would take more than destroying one piece of this place to truly erase knowledge from it. We’ll just have to pursue it more indirectly. Kir!” she called, spotting him crossing a ledge above the alley we were in. “If you’re going to go looking around the Synthesis annex again, I’ll need to accompany you.”
“Didn’t you say we were faculty?”
“Temporary faculty. There’s only one permanent position with all attendant privileges at the moment.”
“Might there be any more in the future?”
Back in the kitchen, she emptied the bucket while I sidled over to the stove, took a wire rack from beside it, and started stuffing it with pieces from a bird’s nest we had cleaned out earlier. I cautiously opened the heatproof compartment built into the counter with the red glow inside.
“Leave Zhuas alone,” said Sem, because of course she’d gotten lonely enough to name the flame gremlin that powered her kitchen. But on behalf of boys everywhere who would never get this kind of opportunity to play with fire, I had an obligation to seize it every chance I got. All I had to do was feed her a sufficiently engrossing question.
“All things are connected, huh? Are you into all that stuff about mushroom threads and invisible webs by any chance?”
“It is an apt image, isn’t it? Even for what we do here, not that we need such things. Sadly open to misinterpretation, of course, as you can see in groups like the One Thread…”
It wasn’t hard to send her into an academic tangent, especially since she so seldom had an audience. While she expounded from across the room, I slid the compartment open again and teased its occupant out onto the rack. Before long I had a grid full of mesmerizing multicolored flames: bright orange or blue where there was fuel, growing as they fed; dull red and slow-moving elsewhere, like connective tissue. It was selective about what it would consume, whether by nature or training, though even the dormant plasma was still hot to the touch. I wondered how much skin contact it would take to leave a burn.
“…a kernel of truth in all faiths, but they found a bigger kernel than most. Still, all that symbolism and sacrifice and earthiness, it gets in the way. A truly spiritual person inhabits a world beyond — Reid! What did I just say?”
Once we got the blaze under control and back in its box, we joined Kir in the garden behind the dining hall to finish weeding and gathering vegetables. After working in silence for as long as I could handle, I brought up something that had been nagging at me. “This friend of yours, Sem. How did you say he left again?”
“I didn’t.” She looked very interested in the weeds all of a sudden. “And I’m sorry for that, Reid. I don’t like concealing things; I knew I’d have to tell you eventually. He disappeared when the Transmigration wing did. I don’t know where he is, or even if he’s alive.” She stood up with her basket. “I think that’s enough gardening for now. This is difficult for me to talk about.”
When we finally sat down to make a plan, I began with the obvious question. “If we’re following in his footsteps, how do we know we won’t get blown up too?”
“Because we can learn from his mistakes. You already know it’s possibly to cross domains safely, you just need to learn how to control it. With all the knowledge at our disposal here, I’m confident we can do that much.”
“I don’t know how useful I’ll be,” Kir admitted. “I never learned much in the way of reading.”
“Oh, we have materials that should be accessible to anyone.”
“Don’t get your hopes up as to how much I’ll be able to read either,” I added.
She caught on to the homophone and clapped her hands. “Read!” she echoed in English. “Is that the same as your name? I love it!”
“Nah, it just sounds the same.”
“What does your name mean, then?”
“I don’t understand. All names mean something.”
“Not where I come from. My parents just picked it because it’s different from other people and they thought it sounded good. I’m not even named after any relatives. It just means me. And it’s not even my first name, that one’s worse.”
“You don’t like it.”
“I won’t lie, I was always a little jealous of my brother and sister’s names. Esther was the name of some ancient queen who probably did something important, and Satori means…well, it’s a religious thing, don’t worry about it. We’re not even religious. But at least it means something.”
Tori was born during our parents’ Japanese Zen phase, and Esther caught the tail end of their brief flirtation with Judaism. By the time they had me, they’d given up chasing the transcendental and settled into good old materialism. All a name needed was to be distinctive and non-traditional, never mind if your son grew up feeling like he was named after a hedge fund. Acton Reid Asset Management.
“What does Semelis mean?”
“Fullness of the heart.”
“Dang, that’s deep. Not fullness of the head?”
“New parents can’t predict the future, can they?” Was it just me, or did her smile look kind of forced? She cleared her throat. “But we’re straying. I think the best place for us to begin would be Analytics. Bring your artifacts as well if you want to learn more about them.”
The Analytics chambers were a honeycomb of crisscrossing walls and shelves, creating spaces that would have been claustrophobic if any of them had been fully enclosed. Our first stop was a curtained-off chamber that merged into the back wall, with a low ceiling and oddly angled walls of its own. A set of steps led to a platform on top of it with an alcove.
Sem explained, “The ‘castaway’ you met, Forside, you said he borrowed your talisman to analyze it? We can do the same here, and I’m sure more efficiently.”
I handed her the talisman and she examined its panels with a puzzled smile. “Is it customary for family members to give these to one another?”
“Nope. That’s what makes it special.”
“These are some fascinating markings. What do they mean?”
“It’s hard to explain. It’s…cultural.” In truth, I’d have had a hard time explaining the pictures we’d augmented with Esther’s paint set to anyone in any non-Emberley culture. Like the climactic battle scene in which the hero girl, facing an army of mutant hedgehogs in leotards, summons the 1994 Hartford Whalers (in the form of Tori and me) to whale on them with their cursed hockey sticks. Or the one where we hold a reindeer hostage by piling water balloons between its antlers while writing a ransom note to Santa Claus on an indignant fish.
We stooped to enter the chamber, passing through a series of concentric ten-sided partitions to the cramped space at the center, where she left the talisman on a shelf suspended from the ceiling.
The waist-high ledge of the alcove above the chamber was covered with some flexible material. When Sem touched it, it began distorting into lines of symbols, some of which I was able to read. She summarized for us once the process was finished.
“The connection you made to Esther with this is still detectable, but it was disrupted when the object itself was broken. That must have happened right after you separated, and then you ended up here. Why here though, I wonder…” She paused with a frown. “That’s odd. I was reading something else for a moment, but it’s gone now.
“It’s possible it could still help you reconnect with her. At the very least, it’s drawn to its other half. The only other finding is that this is a source of significant memories to someone, but you already knew that.”
“You must have a strong bond with your sister to follow her this far,” said Kir.
“I don’t know. I used to, anyway. It used to feel more like we were a team. She was usually in charge of the team, but still. And then, I’m not even sure when it started, but everything became all about her: her projects, her wins, her future. Now I’m either the tagalong or just something to leave behind. A dead weight.
“Maybe it’s stupid of me, but I keep getting hung up on this accident I had the other day. We’re crossing over a canyon, I’m following her, I slip and fall. I yell for her, but she doesn’t even turn around until it’s too late. I’d probably be dead if my friend hadn’t been there… But I don’t know why I’m telling you all this now. Forget it.”
Sem had taken her attention off the display to chew this over. “There is more than one kind of strong bond,” she observed. “You at least know why you’re pursuing her?”
“Because she’s in trouble, obviously! I have to help her if I can.”
“Obviously. If I may ask, what about the rest of your family?”
“Oh, things are fine with them. My big brother, the one who made this — ” I pointed to the talisman — “we get along, we have fun. But Mom and Dad don’t want him influencing me too much, and he spends most of the time with his friends anyway. As for my parents…” I faltered. “Now that you bring it up, all I can think about is how many lies I told them just before I ended up here.”
“Have you told us any lies?” she asked matter-of-factly. I shook my head.
“Thank you. The truth is the most valuable possession we have.”
“Seeing as it would have kept me out of this mess, I can’t argue with that. While we’re here, can we take a look at some of my other things?”
“This one has three functions: illuminating, converting energy, and receiving remote transmissions.”
“These are very simple: they absorb. Don’t disdain them, they could be more versatile than you think.”
“This material binds, adheres, and reduces friction.”
The analysis wasn’t telling me much about Esther’s items that I didn’t think I already knew. But just for kicks before we moved on, I put in the Mighty Sparkle Pen of Picshunerry.
Sem looked impressed as the display churned out line after line of words. “Your little stylus contains quite a lot. I wonder what its capacity is.”
“Do you have more of those?” asked Kir.
“A few more. You want one?”
“I’m wondering if there’s a way I could use one to help me read.”
I dug a blue gel pen out of the backpack and presented it to him regally. “Guard it well, uh…forsooth.”
“Are you ready to begin?” asked Sem once everything was packed up again.
“What exactly are we beginning?”
“We’re finding a trail. Institute tradition always precluded the establishment of a department of Relation on the grounds that it was an essential part of every department’s work. I personally think this decision led to some needless inefficiency.”
“If it’s everybody’s job, it becomes nobody’s job.”
“In a way. But its lasting success was that it became standard practice for scholars to link the knowledge they gathered to all other relevant works. It was massively tedious to set up, but it should make our task much simpler if you’re willing to do some extra mental exertion.”
“Oh boy. This all depends on my mind?”
“The connections have already been made for you, you’ll simply be tapping into them. If not, we can always just do the research and make our connections the normal way.”
“How much longer would that take?”
“All right then, plug me in. Just, again, don’t get your hopes up.”
It took her some time to find a book to her satisfaction. “Categories across Reality States. A foundational work.” She indicated the bottom half of the page she’d opened to. “Whatever their line of inquiry was, I’m certain it runs through this section here.”
“Do I just start reading?”
“Try putting yourself in the same state of mind you use for acquiring new words, only this time you’ll need to go a step further. Ideas, like anything else, exist in relation to others. You’ve already learned to follow their relationships grammatically, now you have to do it with propositions.”
She was right that the connections were already there ready-made; I found them as soon as I got the hang of looking for them. But we ran into difficulty almost immediately. I was flooded with linked topics, most of which I didn’t know how to express, and the few that I could were of no use to Sem. I had what she needed, but I didn’t know what to do with it.
It was Kir who had the bright idea for me to take his pen and let it acquire the words that were going through my head. He’d thought of it while brainstorming ways he could use the pen as a reading aid. After some trial and error, we worked out a system where Sem took the pen once I was done with it, cleared her mind, and through a sort of freewriting was able to transcribe the words I’d loaded it with. She said that the most recently activated or strongest connections tended to come up first, so there should be no need to write out a complete list.
One document led to another, and another, and then halfway across campus to the Instrumentality wing. Here we almost lost the trail for a bit until Sem found a book that jogged some troubling memories. Her face darkened as she flipped through the pages and muttered, “Now this one is worth following. I wish it were otherwise, but Strand did take a strong interest… ’Transference of actuality,’ ha, that’s a polite way of putting it… I tried telling him, the decrease of others is no way to increase.” She slammed the book shut. “The Volition tower next.”
Our new destination was one of a pair of circular towers connected by a bridge halfway up. After a few more rounds of searching and climbing its library levels, Sem stopped partway through the list she was writing and fell into a reverie. A look of pure excitement spread slowly across her face.
“What is it? Did you figure it out?” The last topic she had written was Intentional Conduits.
“May I ask you a favor?” she said. “Would you take a brief diversion from your search to help me with one of mine? It’s just across from us in Cognition. We can continue your search from there once we’re done.”
I was disappointed, but I figured I owed her that much. We ascended one more level to reach the bridge to the Cognition tower. “What are we looking for?” I asked as we were crossing it.
“Where to begin? You say that when you were first disconnected from your world, you felt disconnected from your body too. I believe that’s because you were.” She sighed. “If only you could tell us more about that experience.”
“So my body back on Earth…”
“Disintegrated. Then reintegrated once you arrived here.”
“That’s freaky, Sem. I mean, that’s disturbing.” I looked suspiciously at my hand. “Am — am I still me?”
“Of course. You can’t lose who you are, whatever else you might lose. Your word persists. All that happened was that you arrived here soul first, then reconstituted your matter.”
“Soul. You’re telling me souls are real now.”
“After all you’ve seen, did you think you were just a collection of parts?”
“I hadn’t really thought about it.” There was an uneasy feeling building in my chest. “So when we die…?”
“Then,” she said with a smile, “we’ll be free.” Seeing my bewilderment, she went on. “Think about how limited your speech was before you learned to set words free from the sounds we tie them to. That’s what matter does to everything. Imagine having access to one another’s minds, to the truth itself, without having to filter it through the singular and sensory.”
I picked up the pace to get off the bridge before she could recommend freeing ourselves early by taking a dive from it.
“Which brings me to my point. What if we could learn that kind of true connection in this life? I knew a man who believed it was possible, and I’ve been studying and searching to see if I could prove him right ever since. I think what you came across just now gave me the insight I’ve been missing. If you can trace a few more connections for me, I hope to find a path to my solution.”
We entered yet another round library level and I tried to mentally prepare myself for another stint as a human reference catalog. I didn’t want to tell Sem, but I was having a harder time focusing. Like any student who’s ever had to cram for a test, I had wished in the past that I could download knowledge directly into my brain. This was not what I imagined it would feel like.
“Reid? What’s wrong?” I’d been staring vacantly at a spot on the ceiling while Sem was trying to talk to me.
“I’m fine. I’ll be fine. Just a little fuzzy. I mean, it’s a little hard to think clearly.”
“We don’t have to keep doing this. Or we don’t have to continue right now. You can rest.”
“But we have to find the, the thing…”
“Listen,” broke in Kir, who’d kept quiet for the last few legs of our search. “In my home country they have an expression about being lost at sea.”
“Hey, mine too.”
“It meant something more in my village. If we took a boat out and lost our bearings, we risked sailing over the edge. Every few turns a man would wash up who’d gone out too far, jumped overboard to swim back without knowing what he was doing, and lost his boat by the time he came to his senses. So we were warned to always stay within sight of the shore, or an island, or a rock, anything we could recognize.
“That’s the two of us right now, Sem, in your world. He needs something he can hold on to, something more than just ideas, if you don’t want him getting lost.”
“I see.” She mulled this over for a minute. “There is something we might try. This way.”
The bottom level of the tower was over two stories tall, with row upon row of rectangular panels on the walls that turned out to be recessed sliding cabinets. A circular, almost hemispherical contraption occupied most of the space. It was composed mainly of curved segments that were clearly meant to rotate within each other on multiple axes, though almost all of them had become immovable. There were jointed arms and rollers involved that put me in mind of cassette players and old-school film projectors, and a console in the center with an array of hand wheels and levers.
“Is this tangible enough for you?” Sem asked, enjoying the looks on our faces. “I only got to use this viewer twice when it was operational. I can’t keep it in full working order, and the last visitor who knew how hasn’t been back in a long time. But as long as we can move the index, it might be some help to you, Reid.”
With some lubricant from a maintenance closet and much screeching and scraping, we got the outermost ring turning, the one she called the index. When Kir gave it a push, I was able to semi-control it by turning and tilting the corresponding wheel on the console. It had a gap with a complex set of tapered rollers on either side that I was supposed to align with the desired wall cabinet.
Sem called me over to one of the cabinets she had slid out. It contained rolls of what looked like cryptically marked transparency film for an overhead projector, each with a label above it. She pointed to the label Mediation, Theoretical. “Here’s our starting point. See if the index can show you where the next one is.”
This time when Kir gave it some more momentum and I tapped into the connections, it felt more like being guided than having information dumped into me. When the wheel wanted to tilt up, I tilted it up. When it wanted to slow, I slowed it until the gap lined up with its new target. Sem opened the cabinet, skimmed the labels, and put a triumphant finger on one. “It’s working!”
However some mad visionary had designed this room to correlate the tower’s unique body of knowledge, we luckily didn’t need to know how it all worked. We ignored the eyepieces, overlapping viewports, and film cartridges. As long as I kept pointing the index at the right cabinets, Sem could do her thing. I was feeling less overwhelmed already. The new method was noisy and more physically taxing, but it beat having a head full of ideas I couldn’t understand or communicate. And there were bound to be similar shortcuts elsewhere in this surreal place. We would track down what Sem was looking for, then we would track down —
With a jolt and a screech that made me cover my ears, the mechanism wrenched itself around to point, not at any of the cabinets, but at the base of the wall behind me. I gasped, and not just from the noise. At the same moment the machine had moved, my stream of consciousness had been violently shifted off course. My mind was wrenched away from the contents of the tower to an emptiness, a gap in reality that drew in and distorted everything around it. And I would have bet money that the index was now pointing toward a certain hole in the ground where the Transmigration wing used to be.
It was over in seconds, and then the adults were crowding me, asking what had happened. I couldn’t tell them much, but I was certain of one thing: “Someone just messed with the connections.”
“Another person! I’m positive, I felt them.” Someone had disrupted me, or the Institute itself, or both. “It was like…” It was like a very specific moment that I still, infuriatingly, couldn’t remember.
Kir was staring Sem down. “Who else is here?”
“Just us three, I said. I wouldn’t deceive you.” Too anxious and flustered to be offended, she made for the stairs. “I have to check security.”
There were security panels at various points around the campus, like the one that had alerted her to Kir and me the previous day. The nearest one was a grid on the wall of a stuffy room that had once been an office, made of the same material as the display on the artifact analysis chamber. She tapped the squares in a practiced sequence, and symbols popped up on several of them.
“Three people,” she said, horrified. “They’re already inside.”
“How did they get in?”
“They…they came through the main entrance. I don’t know how.”
“What kind of death traps you got there?”
She shook her head. “Nothing.”
“What?” said Kir. “Why not protect your main entrance?”
“No one ever finds it!”
“Do you have any weapons?” he asked. “I left mine by the garden.”
“There might be some things we could use, but shouldn’t we try communicating with them first?”
“Not until we can defend ourselves.”
We ran by the least convoluted route back to the living quarters, where Kir retrieved a broad machete-like blade that he’d been using to chop the more stubborn weeds. Sem checked the security panel just outside the kitchen. “They’ve moved. I can’t be sure, but it looks as if they’re headed for Analytics.”
“Guys,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady, “wherever they’re headed, they’re not friendly. We should be thinking about a way out.”
“I agree,” said Kir. “You two get ready to leave. I’ll try and get close enough to see what they’re doing.”
“Be careful! Meet us at the arch behind the Continuity atrium.”
As soon as he left, Sem reluctantly took out a pair of carving knives, put one in her satchel and handed the other to me without a word, then went to retrieve a few things from her private rooms. I had left all of my things in the backpack by the analysis chamber, except the pepper spray that I made sure was in my pocket at all times. Only then did it hit me that even if we made it out all right, I might lose everything else I had, my only tangible connections to home, and my best shot at getting back.
We fled as quickly as Sem could jog through a tangle of corridors and out onto a terrace. From there we were making our way up an exterior staircase when there was a powerful hiss from the rooftop to our left. A caustic scent rolled over us as the stairs just ahead of us began to collapse. Mortar liquefied or crumbled, stones dropped from the underside like ice cubes from a tray, and within seconds an entire section of staircase and wall cascaded into the courtyard below with a roar and a dust plume.
We flattened ourselves against the wall, staring across the gap at a brawny man with one arm in a sling and the other pointing a metal wand with a steaming nozzle at us. A hose connected the wand to a tank on his back. He looked every bit as smug as the day I’d met him, and not a bit more likely to listen to reason now that we could talk to each other. When he spoke, though he never took his eyes off me, it was to someone else. That was when I noticed he was wearing what looked like a headset.
“Get up here,” said the grinning former security guard I knew only as Armbands. “I found him.”