13 1/3. The Vast Nap

Time, dear reader, is a fickle and enigmatic thing. Every child knows that “five minutes in time out” and “five more minutes until you have to come inside” are immensely different spans. They say that every sixty seconds in Africa, a minute passes — but some extra nanoseconds are passing up on the International Space Station. If you were on a white dwarf star and your friend was talking to you on the phone from orbit, it would sound like you were listening to a chipmunk and then you would die.

Two days for a panic-stricken suburb could be almost two weeks for a traveler in a far-off domain. And what shall we say of the domain of the unconscious? As a pair of exhausted and bewildered young men snatch a few minutes of sleep in their hiding place, who knows for what lengths of subjective time they wander the vaporous, inchoate realm of dreams? Days? Weeks? Two months?

Yeah, basically two months.

Yonder is going on break while I focus on real-world stuff, in other words. I shall rise from my slumber on December 3 to wreak more havoc on unsuspecting worlds. See you then.

13. Labyrinth

Dazed from…whatever spacetime rupture does to the brain, it took me a second to resume panicking. The library was in disarray in front of us, books and scrolls knocked off shelves, furniture askew, and protruding bits of several occupants visible behind the cover they’d taken. I could hear others asking if it was safe to come out, if it was over. We got up unsteadily from the puddle we were sprawled in and saw a kerchiefed head poke around a shelf — the woman Caerd had called Abrien.

“They came through!”

The ornately carved double door behind us moved freely now, but as I feared, it no longer opened onto a school hallway. We were looking at a dimly lit, spacious room lined with display cases and pictures. But with Abrien rallying the others to pursuit behind us, we didn’t have time to be taken aback. We dashed through it and out the opposite door into a sort of rotunda with rooms and passages at all points of the compass.

Of the many decorative wall hangings around the room, the standout was the one directly opposite us. It was larger and newer-looking than the rest, with a much simpler design:

It looked better than this, but you get the gist.

Some fifteen-odd people were passing through, most of them in the standard business attire I’d already seen, but a few wearing strikingly different, possibly ethnic outfits. Any remaining hope of an inconspicuous escape vanished as they all turned to see us come barreling out, backpedal, and swerve into the least populous hallway. All of them were too surprised to react except for one who seemed to recognize me from earlier and raised a shout.

Even without knowing the state of modern architecture in this domain, the place looked old. The stone floor was worn down in spots, and some of the carvings on columns and lintels had seen better days. The series of wall reliefs we were running past showed a succession of regal-looking dudes with various degrees of pomposity and such a range of clothing styles that they must have spanned a healthy slice of history.

Voices escalated behind us, followed shortly by sounds of pursuit. I worked the talisman out of my pocket, slowing myself down and losing ground to Nik in order to check it. It still pulled strongly in a consistent direction.

After we turned into a smaller, branching passage, Nik hesitated. “What?” I asked.

Shh! Let me think!” A yell in all but volume.

His pause gave me just enough time to open the backpack and grab a handful of absorbers, remembering how useful they’d been at the Institute. The pursuing feet had almost caught up to us when he made up his mind and took the leftmost of the three branches.

The few people we encountered looked startled, some yelling at us, most just getting out of our way. We passed one of the wall-mounted speaker boxes long enough to hear, “…eight or nine in appearance. Do not engage if you see them, notify security immediately. Clear all common areas…”

Nik halted when we came to a room at the junction of four corridors, seemingly at a loss. He vacillated between all directions as running echoes converged on us from each. They surrounded us moments later, all wearing similar uniforms: some with different colors or insignia, some with brimless caps, but all distinguished by a pair of broad yellow stripes down their jackets. Most held baton-like weapons while others had restraints ready for us.

“Surrender,” said one of them. “You’re being detained for hostile invasion of this domain and this facility. Cooperate and you won’t be harmed.”

I selected one of the absorbers in my hand and whispered, “Could you get us out of here in the dark?”

“I think.” Nik seized me by the backpack straps from behind, just off to one side. “Run when I say.”

“On your knees!” Four of the Yellowjackets advanced on us.

I activated the absorber to its fullest and everything went black. I lurched forward like a nervous racer jumping the gun, but Nik held me back for an agonizing two seconds. As the room filled with confused voices and movement, he shoved me hard to the right. “Go!”

We zigzagged ponderously, like drunken contestants in the worst kind of blindfolded team exercise, and it was all I could do to keep my feet untangled while being dragged from side to side and trying to run forward. I bounced off a wall, was nearly clotheslined by someone’s arm, and then we were sprinting in a straight line with the uproar behind us.

“You okay? Can you keep this up?” he asked.

“Yeah, just please don’t let me — oof — ” I tripped on a raised threshold and sent us both stumbling. Dim light returned for a moment as I lost concentration, giving us a heavily distorted view of a wide pillared room where people were milling around in dismay with their arms outstretched. I turned the lights out again and we continued swerving around unseen obstacles and corners. More warnings blared from the occasional wall speaker.

We took one more turn, banged into a door, and fumbled it open. Warped rectangles of light appeared at the edge of my vision once inside, growing in in size and intensity until I recognized them as windows. More of the room gradually became visible despite my continued use of the absorber. “Must be running out of juice.” So these things had a limit. I relinquished the light to a room with broad windows framing a sun at either afternoon or midmorning. The other three walls were covered with maps in a variety of styles, and the only other thing in the room was a large contraption at its center.

It was a topographical map built into a tabletop like I’d seen in museums, except it was eight maps in one. Four metal rods connected its corners to the ceiling. Mounted between these were seven boards of the same dimensions as the table, all suspended at different heights by a set of thin cables, each displaying different geography. Nik gave one a push and it slid smoothly downward with a faint sound of pulleys and counterweights from above.

“Think we can get out the wind…ohhhh.” Where I’d hoped to see at most a one-story drop to ground level from the windows, there was no level ground whatsoever. This place was built either into the side of, or on top of, a cliff. We were in a mountain range. The cliff itself looked like it might be climbable, but we were at least four stories above it.

“Well, that ain’t the way out, unless there’s a rope or a bunch of sheets in here.”

Nik was still investigating the maps, letting the snakes roam like behemoths over the miniature plateaus and valleys. In addition to the corner rods keeping them aligned, a scattering of thinner rods vertically intersected all eight, which turned out to be movable in the horizontal plane. He pushed and pulled one around, watching it slide effortlessly through the stack of seemingly solid boards, tapping and probing with his fingers in its wake. “How is it doing that? There’s no holes, just these little ring-collar things around the…”

“Yeah, crazy.” It was hard for me to get interested in or even think about anything besides escaping or finding Esther. I was sore, soaked, frightened, and above all exhausted; my brain felt like it was pickled in battery acid. Coming up with a plan would take all the mental energy I had, maybe more. I sat against the wall below the windows and looked through the backpack again. “If I can keep the lights out, could you find us a way out of here?”

He facepalmed and visibly resisted slamming down the map he was looking at. “How are you still not getting this? All I can do is avoid them, remember? I have no clue where I’m going except that it’s safe! How long can we keep that up, running around dodging people in the dark?”

“Fine! Relax!”

“You relax. You’re supposed to be the expert.”

“It’s my first time here too. I’m brainstorming.” I held out the talisman, which pointed downward and to my two o’clock. “We don’t know the way out, but maybe we could find our way to Esther with this.”

“Won’t they be guarding her more closely now?”

“Maybe you could find a way around the guards.”

“Maybe that’s not how it works. Sensing trouble doesn’t do you any good if you go toward the trouble! Let me see that.” He sat next to me and I handed him the talisman, which hung limp the moment he took it. “Aaand it only works for you. Terrific.” He took the transparent case with the mystery object from school out of his pocket. “Hey…Look at this.”

“Am I losing my mind or did that use to be bigger? Not a rhetorical question.”

“Probably and definitely.”

Where before there had been an octagonal prism with eight sections, there was now only one section rattling around the box like a puzzle piece for a toddler learning shapes. I could see slots and projections on either side which had locked it to the adjacent pieces.

“How? You didn’t open the box, did you?”

“Does it even open?” He pulled at it, searched for some kind of seam. “What can those scissors do here?”

“Cut stuff, I guess? I haven’t tried.”

As soon as he pried at the box with the tip of the scissors, it broke in half neatly and so suddenly that he dropped both.

After a second of startled silence, we “whoa’d” in perfect unison. He examined the octagon piece while I picked up the scissors in awe. “Jinx… Aaaughh, idiot! Why did I never think of that? Had them on me this whole time…” I got up, faced the window, and dragged the tip of one blade along the glass. The entire pane cracked down the middle. Our faces cracked with the age-old grin of schoolboys endowed with destructive power.

“No way.”

“Try something else!”

I tested the scissors on the edge of the table, and with a report that made us both jump, a fault line appeared in the map, continuing through the rest of the table down to the floor.

The thought that someone probably heard that cut our giggling short. We scooped up the snakes, and after checking the corridor, darted across it and through an inconspicuous door into darkness. I released a little of the light I’d absorbed and saw we were in what looked like a service passageway.

The sound of another announcement reached us from outside: “…all Sphon levels, remain in your work area and secure all entrances. If you lose visibility, call us with your location…”

“So they’re locking down. And they’re onto my Dumbledore trick.”

“You understood that.”

“Most of it, yeah, did you catch anything?”

“No. I got a few things people said earlier, just some words and phrases.”

“But hey, who says locks can stop us now? Let’s see if this works on metal.” There was a pipe running along the back wall near the floor. When I took the scissors and closed it on the pipe’s circumference, I barely had to squeeze before there was a loud ringing snap that stung my hand, and a jet of water hit me full in the face. The section upstream from the break sagged, gushing water that quickly flooded the floor. Recoiling, I dropped the absorber and got punched in the retinas by the burst of light, adding blindness to renewed wetness.

Ow! Haha! Okay then!” Only Nik’s insistence that we had to move stopped me from holding the all-cleaving scissors aloft with a supervillain laugh. We splashed our way along the passage in darkness until we heard voices ahead of and behind us, at which Nik took the first door we came to.

Instead of more antique stone hallways, we emerged into what felt like an utterly different building and era. The walls, ceiling, and floor were made up of uniform dark slabs, each with two rows of indentations down its height. There were recessed lights at intervals and no ornamentation to be seen. From somewhere nearby came a muffled mechanical rumble.

The next corner we turned brought us to an opening, with no barrier of any kind, on the edge of a cavernous space. It called to mind the lobbies of certain brutalist corporate or government buildings I’d seen, minus almost any standard architectural features. On our immediate right was a monumental wall of the same stone or composite slabs, its monotony broken up by a handful of stark ledges and openings with no apparent order to their placement. Across the chamber from us, the walls were a mixture of natural rock and similar sections of slab, with a few boxy structures cantilevered out improbably over the open space. Most of the ledges, and swathes of the chamber floor far below us, were littered with equipment and cordoned off like a construction site. At ground level chunks of the great wall to our right were missing, giving the appearance of an unfinished puzzle.

When I stood on the very edge to get a better look, the wall came to life. Horizontal blocks slid out of it one after the other, a staircase unfolding in front of us until it reached one of the ledges below.

“We’ve got to go down eventually, right?” I said.

“Well, we can’t stay here.”

“After you.”

As we reached the landing, a squad of Yellowjackets entered on the ground floor and spotted us instantly. A cry went up, the usual orders not to move and calls to alert their comrades. I looked back to see if anyone had caught up to us at the top of the stairs, only to see the first of the steps retracting into the wall. We had no choice but to stay on our perch and watch our avenue of retreat disappear.

Drawn by the noise below, two more Yellowjackets appeared on a ledge ahead of and slightly above us, accompanied by two men in standard outfits. One of these appeared to be in the middle of an argument with them, a bespectacled man around average Earth height, making him one of the shorter people we’d seen so far, with an aggressive but subtly lopsided stance.

The younger of the civilians hung back, taking everything in with keen dispassionate eyes. The man with the glasses, meanwhile, reacted to us with a new kind of shock — not the “who let these random kids into my evil fortress” surprise, but something more like horrified recognition. I felt as if our presence personally offended him.

It only showed for an instant. He pushed down the arm of the Yellowjacket next to him, who had just aimed a thin-barreled weapon I very much hoped was a tranquilizer gun at us.

“Not out here, they might fall. Better get them inside first. Leave it to me.” His companion watched him dart away out of sight before following more calmly, while the Yellowjackets conferred with each other too quietly for me to hear.

The squad on the ground floor had activated another set of stairs, this one ascending toward us. Nearby on the opposite side of our ledge, vertical wall slabs were shifting to create a new opening, while more ledges slid out forming a path to it. Nik jumped to the nearest one as soon as there was room on it for him.

“Didn’t you hear him? They want us to go that way!”

“I didn’t hear and I don’t care.”

“Let’s think about this.”

“Better think fast.”

The Yellowjackets were already climbing the new stairs as the last step slid into place at my feet. I gripped the scissors in my right hand, got close to the wall, and ran toward them.

Wha — Reid!

I stopped a short way down, bent over, and stabbed the step below me where it joined the wall. The entire slab broke off and plummeted spinning to the floor with a smash that was well worth the stinging shock to my hand. I whooped, stepped up, and repeated, stooping and stabbing my way swiftly back to the top. Soon the entire section of stairs was lying in fragments atop some construction equipment that I hoped would be a huge pain to replace.

“Hurry!” Nik was waiting for me at the opening, three ledges away. The time I thought I had bought us proved fleeting as the ledge I was standing on began to retract. Seeing no other choice, I crossed over and followed him inside. The wall closed behind us.

The interior was more of the same uniform slab construction, with the rumbling behind the walls now slightly more prominent. We didn’t see anyone, only crates and furniture stacked as if for an interrupted move. But after several twists and turns, Nik abruptly stopped and began backtracking, muttering, “Nope, not there.”

Backtracking only led to confusion, however. Where there had been a three-way junction before, the hall now simply turned a corner. “Wait, we didn’t come this way…”

“Yeah we did.”

“Look at this! No we didn’t!”

“We totally did! My sense of direction is — ”

“Doesn’t matter. This way.”

I followed him in the only direction left to us, but in short order it led us to a dead end. “Uh, Nik…?”

“It doesn’t make sense, this way felt fine…”

While he was looking for hidden doors or some other way out, neither of us noticed the walls descending behind us until they had almost reached the floor. Before we could react, we were sealed in a narrow chamber.

“They got us, I told you, you walked right into it!”

The rumbling intensified and our enclosure began to move sideways. The pressure on my ears jumped painfully, like descending in an airplane all at once. Nik dropped the octagon he was holding with a clatter. Once we came to a stop and popped our ears, he recovered the piece and inspected it in confusion.

“It moved,” he said. “It moved in my hand and…wait, this is a different piece.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Look, it’s a different color. Different markings.” I had never taken a close look at the markings engraved on the thing, but it was definitely a darker shade of blue than before.

“Let me try something.” I poked the wall next to me with the scissors and stood back. The slab I had touched cracked lengthwise but didn’t budge. I tried a crosswise cut and gave one of the resulting pieces a shove, but they were wedged in place and difficult to move even a few inches.

“Think we’ll be okay if I try the floor?” Nik nodded. The floor slab I split shifted noticeably, and a few kicks was all it took to dislodge its loose half, which fell seven or eight feet into a dimly lit space below us. Sounds of clanking and whirring came from the hole.

Nik swung himself through the opening, and a moment later I heard a subdued, astonished whistle. Once I followed, it was immediately apparent why.

We were in a forest of narrow girders and cogwheels, holding in place hundreds of identical slabs above and below us: some parked in neat stacks; many arranged into walls, floors, and ceilings; others being conveyed up, down, and sideways by the cogs, rack and pinion style. Some of their placements made sense to my unmechanical mind; others looked like they shouldn’t have been physically possible. We happened to be standing on one of several slabs parked haphazardly under the room we’d just left.

“Come on,” said Nik. “Someone’s bound to come looking for us up there soon.” He walked out on an adjacent girder, steadied himself on one of the uprights, and jumped his way down three lower slabs. When I caught up to him, he pointed to a short line of them moving toward us at a brisk pace. “You good to catch a ride?”

“Sure…”

It was like long jumping onto a moving walkway, except the consequence for falling was far worse than getting run over by some lady’s roll-aboard suitcase. I lost my balance on landing, but thankfully fell sideways instead of forward. I rolled away from the edge and stayed sitting as we were carried along.

Once out in the open, I thought I could make out a floor far below us in the low light, but not a ceiling. An enclosed network of rooms branched around us in all directions, with supports and random blocks sticking out of them. Glaringly absent, however, was the exterior of the nearby halls we had just been blundering through. I didn’t have energy to spend on wondering about that. Nik for his part lay on his back like he’d been steamrolled, glazed eyes staring up into the shifting architectural jungle gym, and it was obvious he’d hit his weirdness limit for the day. Night. Whatever state we were in relative to Pacific Standard Time. My watch hadn’t reset when I passed through the door, I noted. It now showed almost noon on January first. Almost midnight on April eleventh?

Maybe I should start writing this down somewhere. Eleven days on Var…starting the clock for wherever we are now…

“Hey, do you think there’s someplace in here we can lay low for a bit?”

“There better be,” he groaned.

“I think I see a catwalk down there.”

We were able to jump to a packed cluster of wall slabs, pick our way across the top, and clamber down an upright girder to reach the catwalk. No one was around, but that might not last, and it was hard to find anywhere we didn’t feel exposed from multiple angles. Still, getting our feet on something that wasn’t liable to slide out from under them was progress.

The closest thing to stable shelter we found was on an out-of-the-way platform where some spare parts were being stockpiled. We crawled into the partially covered space behind a stack of girders and tried to find semi-comfortable positions.

“You’re sure this is safe?”

“For the last time!”

“Just saying. I mean, what happened to your Spidey-sense back there?”

“Hey, get off my back.” He let the snakes out of their jacket pockets for some fresh air. “It’s not as strong here, I have to get used to it. If that doesn’t please you, see how far you get without me.”

“I’m just not used to you freezing up.”

“How do you know standing still wasn’t the safest thing to do? What if every direction is trouble? Love to see you make that decision.”

“You know, I didn’t make you come. You could have gone home.”

“No I couldn’t.”

“This is hard for me too! We’re in the same boat.”

“Oh, stuff a bag of gym socks in that. You had to what, outrun the Blob on your first day? I’m here outrunning a whole security force in their own base and looking out for you. And you’re somehow not captured yet, so again, get off my back.”

I can confidently say we would have kept this bickering up for much longer if not for an aggressive onset of yawning. “I’m gonna pass out if I keep sitting here,” I said.

“One of us should keep watch. I could keep awake for a little longer. You get a nap, then we’ll switch.”

“Wake me up in like half an hour.”

My last sleep had been two domains ago. I was out before I could hear a reply.

Next:
14. Superposition

Previous:
12. Class of 2000 and Never

12. Class of 2000 and Never

I took in as much of the room as I could without moving my head and neck. We were in an open space at the middle of the library, dominated by the aforementioned table in front of me. The table was cluttered with documents, diagrams, and pieces of equipment both scrutable and otherwise. At its center, mostly blocked from view by piles of books, was a grid dotted with pegs and overlaid with a tangle of glowing lines. It looked like the man and woman currently staring me down had been poring over this just before my intrusion. Beyond them, the room’s other occupants watched me warily, a woman paused in the middle of recording something at a smaller table and a man who had just entered through a side door. If you haven’t already guessed, all of them were tall — not superhumanly so, but taller enough than the Earth average to be noticeable.

“Who else is with you?” asked the man behind the table. All his speech was curt and straight to the point. This may have been a function of the overall atmosphere of stress and intense focus in the room, although looking at him I could easily believe it was his default manner. His posture was scrupulous, his movements precise, his fair angular face clean-cut and equipped with a brow best described as permafurrowed.

“It’s just — ” I was about to say it was just me, but their henchmen in the school had already seen Nik. “Just my friend.”

“What friend?”

“Just another kid, a school friend. Leave him out of this.”

Could he really have gotten here on his own?the woman asked him in their language.

We can answer that later. If he got in, others might.” He turned to the man who’d just come in. “Alert security.”

“Who are you people? Where’s Esther?”

They glanced at each other and must have agreed that there was no harm in answering. “Paiumi Caerd,” said the woman, an imposing figure with strong lines in her nut-brown face and streaks of gray in her hair. While the others in the library all wore variations on a collared, belted tunic that I guessed was their equivalent of business casual, and the men in the school had more practical workman’s outfits, her dress was distinctively pleated and patterned in muted colors. “This is Rakine Roia. And first of all, Esther is safe.”

“Sure. I’ll believe that when I hear it from her.” I hoped defiant words would compensate for the tremor in my voice. I doubt it fooled anyone.

“That isn’t possible right now,” said Roia. The two of them moved around the table to approach me from opposite directions, his brisk stride almost entirely masking a limp. The door I’d entered through slammed again and two pairs of hasty footsteps came toward us from behind. The man by the door had gone over to a boxy wall-mounted apparatus and was speaking into one of the disks built into it. “Tell Orokobu we have an intruder…no, not them, it’s the catalyst’s brother…alone, apparently. They have him contained at Breach Site One.”

“Thank you, Abrien, quick thinking as always,” said Caerd to whomever was holding me. “Give him some space now.” The point of the blade came off my neck and the hand off my shoulder, and I got my first look at my captor. Instead of the ninja-type operative with a big dagger I’d been picturing, there was a flushed, tense-looking woman in a sort of kerchief, with some tubular cases tucked under her arm. She held a fistful of utensils, including a short precision blade with a long pen-like handle.

Did I just get held at X-Acto knifepoint? I felt a little silly, though not particularly relieved — no doubt she could still mess me up with it. We stepped away from each other and I spun around to see if I had a way out. It wasn’t promising. Caerd and Roia were forcing me to back away from them as they advanced, with shelves on either side of me. The new arrivals were blocking my retreat: Overalls and someone I hadn’t seen yet, a bullet-headed blunt instrument of a man with a thin beard and thinner hair, wearing a vest full of tool pockets.

Abrien moved to the end of the table and handed one of her tubes to the man sitting there, who I couldn’t believe had escaped my notice earlier. He was working on something behind a trifold screen not unlike what they used to use in elementary school to keep us from cheating on tests. Even now that I knew he was there, it was difficult to keep him or anything around him in focus. Then again, I had a lot to pay attention to at once.

We’ve had a — oh. You already know,” said Overalls.

There was also another boy who fled the building,” the Tool Man added. “They triggered a security alarm first. I expect the authorities will be there soon — we didn’t come prepared for combat.”

Is the Autua link secure, Ennis?” Roia asked the Tool Man. “You’ve stabilized it?”

Caerd held up a hand to cut him off, then spoke a word I didn’t catch, directed at the others in the room.

Can you understand us?she asked me.

It took barely any effort for me to act bewildered and ignorant, given all the practice I’d been getting lately. “What? What just happened? You can still do English, right?”

“Of course. Sorry, your language is new to me. No linguistic shortcut can override a lifetime of habit.” She seemed convinced, giving me the dubious satisfaction of knowing just how good I was at being clueless.

Up to this point I had understood more of their conversation than my own repertoire of inwords could account for, but no longer. Could words be suppressed? I’d have to chew on that one later.

Go on,she told Roia. “Get your men under control. I’ll deal with him.” She took several more steps toward me; I took several backward. Ennis and Roia circled around me to confer with each other.

“So, uh…what happens now? What are you going to do with me?”

“For the moment, nothing. I mentioned we were otherwise occupied. I am very curious, however: what happened after you and Esther were separated?”

If she wasn’t going to threaten torture or anything, I didn’t see a reason to play along. “That’s my line. What do you pedo cultists want with her? I mean, sneaking around stealing school pictures? Where do you get that kind of obsession?”

While keeping my eyes on her, I tried to overhear as much as I could of Roia’s huddle with Ennis, who seemed to be in charge of things in the field. “We’ll withdraw temporarily…Let them search all they want…retain control of the breach’s immediate surroundings and move the link there…I won’t waste this much preparation unless absolutely necessary.”

“I know nothing about this is ideal,” said Caerd, “but we don’t expect or require you to understand. Esther is now part of an enterprise that outweighs all personal concerns.”

What about him? Do we detain him or send him back?”

Take him back, then find a place to detain him. It’ll be easier over there.”

My only advantage was that they didn’t know I could understand them. The longer I could keep Caerd talking before they threw me out, the more I could learn from the others. My stalling tactics might not work so well on Mom anymore, but they were worth a try here.

Word about the Earthboy in the room had spread quickly. More people were entering the library and closing in around us. Roia waved them off. “Keep your distance. You can help by blocking all exits except the breach. Make sure he leaves the way he entered.”

I bit back the saltier retorts I felt like throwing at Caerd; hostility wouldn’t help me. “You’ve got no right to yoink people from our world just because you can’t get things done yourselves. Give her back.”

“She’ll be a hero to millions of people.” Again she stepped forward and I stepped back. “Do you have the right to to take that from her?”

“Even if I believed that…what, you think I’m just going to walk away and leave her?”

“That would be the safe option, yes. Think carefully before you say such things.” She was thinking carefully herself now, considering new possibilities, and a more amiable look came over her. “I have to admire attachment like yours. If you’re that set on following her, we could perhaps find something for you to do.”

I couldn’t suppress a twitch. Was I doomed to keep hearing some version of those words no matter how far I went? “Your brother wants to come too. Find something for him to do.” But in the interest of further stalling, I ignored the slight. “Like what?”

You’ve identified the main bond focus?” Roia was asking.

Yes, it’s distributed all over the building. Shouldn’t be more than an inconvenience once the locals are gone.”

Good. You did well to collect the others, but something that extensive should be sufficient on its own.”

“…no guarantee of returning to the life you’ve known. What I can guarantee you is an opportunity. The chance to surpass anything you could have achieved in your own world. To liberate yourself and bring about a historic liberation for others.”

Sounds deluded. “Sounds great. But what do you actually want me to do — like right now?”

“I just told you.”

Whoops.

Caerd’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. She was going to see through my ignorance act if I wasn’t more careful. “I said that if you truly want to be reunited with Esther, you’ll start by surrendering that bag and everything else you’re carrying, and submitting to temporary custody.” She wasn’t breaking eye contact — had I let my eyes wander toward the men while I was listening?

Better change the subject. “Yeah, this is the second time I’ve heard that one today. Were those your goons at the Institute, or do you all use the same script?”

“Pardon? The Institute?”

“Yeah…the Institute Holistic? Var?”

“I’m not familiar…It sounds like you’ve been on quite the adventure of your own.” Her curious look intensified. I’d given her a clue without meaning to.

She turned in Roia’s general direction and said casually, “He knows too much. We’ll have to kill him.”

There was only one viable direction to run in. They had me surrounded, but there was a decent-sized gap on either side of Overalls. And he just might be the only person between me and the exit back to school, the one Roia told them not to block.

I’d fake him out, just like cutting around a defender on the court; I did it all the time. I lunged to my right without thinking, but the instinct I was counting on deserted me. Before I knew what was happening, I had overshot, too close to avoid him by reversing direction, and reacted like a complete novice. I ducked, almost lost my balance, and dove sideways straight into Ennis’s arms.

In two seconds he and Overalls had me pinned against the nearest shelf, while most of the others rushed in to surround me. “Calm down, everyone. Calm down,” Caerd laughed, a more pleasant laugh than I thought she had any right to. The only sinister thing about it was that she found any of this amusing. To the others she said more brusquely, “He’s listening. Ennis, get him out of here before you discuss anything further.” Then to me: “If you wanted to see your sister again, trying to deceive us was the wrong way to start.”

They pulled the backpack off and Ennis continued to hold me while the rest stepped back. Not quite sure whether that remark about killing me was only a trick or a legitimate order as well, I thrashed, stamped at his feet, and used my every degree of freedom to try and get in a groin shot.

“Stop that,” he snapped, and twisted both arms painfully behind me as soon as the pack was off.

Better tie him,” Caerd said. She walked away for a moment to get a length of cord from somewhere nearby, then bound my wrists with it. “You’ll be fine, Reid, as long as you give up trespassing and eavesdropping. We’ll continue our talk after all this is over.”

Ennis manhandled me back through the door into my school. He tossed the backpack aside and steered me out into the atrium, then toward the connector to the high school, checking doors as we passed them in search of a place to store me.

“Act wisely and forget you saw any of this, and they might let you go. You were never meant to be involved.” To himself he added, “That’s what we get for working with an outsider.”

He shut me up in the first closet we came to, and I pressed an ear against the door waiting for him to leave. Would it really not occur to him that I couldn’t be locked in and could easily work the handle?

There was a click, a whoosh, and a bright orange glow flared up outside. I jumped back as spits of flame began licking through the crack between door and frame, the metal heating up. The handle glowed red, then orange, then yellow, and the air around me grew hot and smoky, forcing me to the floor.

With another click, the flames cut out. Once the metal cooled back to red, Ennis pounded on the door and the lock area, testing his handiwork, then hurried away.

Needless to say, the door was fused shut. The handle wouldn’t budge once I could get an elbow on it without being burned. There was nothing else in the closet but a few electrical conduits, certainly nothing I could use as a tool. I struggled with the cord around my wrists for a while, but Caerd really knew her knot-tying. In the end all I could do was wait, listen, and think about what was going to happen when they let me out.

If they planned to interrogate me, they’d get bored in a hurry once they found out how little I knew about anything. What then? Lock me up somewhere else? Try to recruit me? Use me as a tool, more likely; it hadn’t escaped my notice how that guy referred to Esther as “the catalyst”. Maybe they’d start right in on erasing my ties to the school once they were done with hers. Wouldn’t take anywhere near as long.

Two sounds pulled me out of my thoughts. The first was a police siren, filtering through the building from one of its remaining connections to the outside world. The second was a series of quiet bumps from the closet’s ceiling. Though it was hard to tell in the low light, something was moving one of the tiles.

“Hello?” There was no answer as the bumping and scraping continued. Finally I discerned the outline of a snake thrusting its way through a gap between tiles where a conduit penetrated. “Nik?” I called tentatively. I couldn’t tell which it was, but it had to be one of his, unless Wrigley was back in snake mode.

It drew back and out of sight. “Yeah, go get help, Lassie,” I muttered. But a short time later I heard soft approaching footsteps and Nik’s voice: “There you are!”

“Here I am.”

“Whoa, what? Reid? What are you doing in there?”

“Being tied up! What happened to you?”

“Those guys stopped following me after I ran outside. Red must have slipped out somewhere along the way. No one’s watching the high school, so I lay low there for a bit, snuck back in here to look for you when it was safe, then I saw Red hanging out of the ceiling.”

“Speaking of, do you think you could get in here through the ceiling? The door’s stuck.”

After some fruitless rattling (”Told ya”), he went into the adjoining classroom, where I heard him jumping and swatting at ceiling tiles. Grunting and general upheaval followed until one of the tiles above me was pulled up and his faint partial silhouette appeared in the opening. He hung down and began worming his way in, grabbing my shoulders for support. As soon as his legs came through we both collapsed in a heap on the floor.

I filled him in while he got to work on the cord around my wrists…and kept working on it…and kept working on it, getting increasingly agitated as the cord refused to get any looser. “Hey, uh…how’s it going back there?” I prodded after a few minutes.

“Gimme a second,” he growled. “I’m — uugghhh, these knots! What did they do, superglue them?”

“You did not just put your mouth on me.”

“I thought I could use my teeth! Nothing’s working!”

“We might have to cut it. My — Esther’s backpack should be out in the hall. There’s a scissors in there.”

One stealth retrieval mission and some more ceiling damage later, he was back with the scissors and a severely depleted store of patience. “If this doesn’t work we’re cutting one of your hands off. I’m not doing any more of that. Oh — ha, yes! There we go. Freedom!”

I won’t say who it was who placed a hand wrong while scrambling over the wall and fell, bringing a whole section of the ceiling grid down with him. All I’ll say is that it was dark and it could have happened to anyone. Since there was no way the crash and accompanying yowl went unnoticed, we rounded up the snakes, which Nik had had to leave to their own devices on the classroom floor, and made ourselves scarce.

The high school connector was longer than I felt it needed to be. Ordinarily we would have passed a board at the beginning of the hallway with our faces on it, along with the rest of the Class of 2000. Every year the eighth graders continuing on to Bohr High processed this way after graduation, to be greeted by their new teachers on the other side. My aversion to the place had been growing more or less on pace with my classmates’ anticipation. While acting as excited as any of them, in private I feared another transition like sixth grade: intruding onto Esther’s territory, primed with two years’ worth of expectations she had set, only this time with two more years of her watching over me to look forward to. For now, however, angst about the future could take a back seat to ensuring I would still have one.

The outcry over my escape began almost as soon as the double doors at the far end closed behind us. Once we’d run far enough to satisfy Nik, we stopped in a moonlit stairwell to collect our thoughts.

“So you got into their…their domain? What was it like?” Nik lay on his back with Great Red at the top of the stairs, his head hanging downward to watch Orm exploring the handrail.

“I literally saw one room and some sky out a window. And some scumbags. That’s the main thing I can tell you about it, it contains books and scumbags.”

“Just by walking through a door…I didn’t know it was that simple.”

“Maybe it’s not. It looks like they put a lot of work into this…whatever this is.”

Neither of us was used to playing the strategist, and the exhaustion wasn’t helping. Our obvious priority was escaping into the real world at the first opportunity. But with the people behind Esther’s disappearance so close at hand, I couldn’t leave it at that.

“The police are already here,” I said, pacing up and down the stairs with my hands on my head. “They’re probably searching the other school right now. The real one. They don’t find anyone there, they go home. Till then, the tall guys are planning to pull back and go dark. Then I guess they’ll finish what they started.”

“And then they’ll close the door to their place?”

“Probably. You know, if we could just get the cops to that door while it’s still open…They aren’t prepared for a fight, he said.”

“But would the cops be prepared for them? You saw what one guy did to that closet.”

“That’s what they can do on our side of the door. Imagine what a SWAT team could do on their side.”

“If you really want to go there…”

“They kidnapped my sister, Nik. I don’t see the two of us storming that place all by ourselves and getting her back. If we can keep the library open, get the cops’ attention and get them to it, they might have a shot at doing something. And if you just want to get out of here, I understand. There’ll be—”

“No, I’m in,” he said abruptly.

“You sure?” Now that I understood just how safe he’d been playing it his whole life on Earth, I was more than a little surprised.

“Yeah, screw it. We might not get another chance like this. You have any sort of plan?”

“Not really, but I have an idea of how to keep them from closing the door. I know what they’re after.”


Esther’s Spirit Chain project was without a doubt the thing she was most remembered for at the middle school. It was what had first marked her out as Someone to Watch, the reason for her place on the Wall of Leadership. Looking for ways to bring some solidarity to our clique-riddled school other than bashing rival schools, she had originally proposed the challenge as a School Spirit Week activity in place of the usual “come to school in your pajamas” or “wear a silly hat” days.

I don’t remember all the details of how the system worked, since the rules grew pretty Byzantine over the years. At its core, the Spirit Chain was a way of encouraging our insular student groups, teams, and clubs to engage with each other. Each group had its own segment of chain to grew over the course of a semester, but they couldn’t add links to their own segment. Links could only be earned for others, by a range of supportive actions from helping promote their activities to showing up at games or events they put on. Every semester each group was assigned as another’s “patron,” with a different patron supporting them in turn, in what was meant to be a forward-paying loop reaching all the way around Bohr’s social scene.

The initiative had a promising start once the administration was on board, and for two years it really did make the kind of positive connections they hoped for – until Esther graduated and it turned out not to be sustainable. Without her, Trina, and their circle putting in the work to come up with fresh incentives and fun challenges, it lost most of its momentum. Ambitious student council members and idealistic teachers did their best to keep it going, but everyone could tell it wasn’t the same. Those who didn’t care made a joke of it, while those who did ended up making it more of a competition than Esther ever intended.


“Their boss called it, what was it, a bond target — a bond focus. I don’t know what else he could have been talking about. So if they don’t want to call their mission off until they get their sweaty paws on it, what if we got our sweaty paws on it first?”

“Cool plan, except how are we supposed to get them all?”

“Got a theory about that. Try and follow me.” Not for the first or last time, I wished Sem was around to tell me if I was on the right track. “Right now there’s a gazillion pieces all over the place, yeah, but they were made to all be one single chain. That’s their reason — they’re going to get connected at the end of the semester. And the prize we all get depends on the length of the whole chain, not the pieces. So I’m thinking we try and harness that connection.”

“That connection that doesn’t exist yet.”

“No. No. Kind of? It’s hard to explain if you haven’t seen it. It gave me a headache at first too.”

“At first?”

“Fine, still.” I took the squirming talisman out of my pocket. “All I know is, this thing made a connection to its other half without me even trying. And I pulled you into this whole twilight-halfway-border-zone by making a connection with you. So who’s to say we couldn’t pull in the rest of Esther’s chain starting from just one piece?”

He sprang to his feet. “Well, I’ll keep an eye out for one, but I’ll be looking mostly for an exit or a way to warn the cops. Either way we have to get to a normal room first, so let’s start with that.”

Before we headed back he asked, “Do you get a weird feeling from this place?”

“Dude, I’m going to have to make a chart pretty soon to keep track of all the weird feelings there are. What kind of weird?”

“Not like trouble. I mean, that’s been there the whole time. This one was faint at first. I think it gets stronger when they change things, when they switch us back and forth between the real Bohr and here. I can’t put my finger on it, but it feels familiar in a way.”

“Not because we — ”

No, not because we go here. A different kind of familiar.”

“Uh-uh, I’m not getting that.” The transitions only felt out of joint and wrong to me, which in one sense was becoming distressingly familiar.

The atrium was silent when we returned, a silence which was soon broken by a large bird fluttering up to the balcony railing next to us. From the way it stared at us, it had to be Wrigley.

“Thanks for ditching us!” I whispered.

“He’s shy of these people. Can’t blame him for that.”

We peeked around the corner of the main hall to see light coming from two rooms in addition to the library. The hall was in its normal state, and I should have been able to see the prominent chain segment of the yearbook club hanging outside the computer lab where they met. “Susan, they already got it. Of course they’d grab the obvious ones.”

“Who’s Susan?”

“Oh, that’s one of the new cusses I picked up on Var. Remind me to give you the full list later. Hmm… I bet they missed the one in Mrs. Graham’s room.”

Nik went to check, with Wrigley following him in a catlike form. He crouched below window level when he passed lighted rooms, but at the library he poked his head up just enough to get a look inside despite my vehement shooing gestures. He tried the door of our English classroom and shook his head at me.

A piece of Wrigley split off and appeared to melt, trickling under the door. The handle turned shortly afterward and Nik opened it, beckoning me to hurry. To our perplexity, Wrigley then divided in two, one of which scampered up the wall and disappeared into the ceiling while the other ran off down the hall.

“He really picks and chooses when to be useful, huh?”

“Uh-huh,” said Nik, distracted. “You know that feeling I was talking about? The familiar-weird one? It’s a lot stronger around here.”

“I’m still not getting anything. The only thing I can think of…they were talking about moving some doohickey closer to the library. I bet it’s in one of those rooms with the lights on.”

“Wish I could have a look at whatever it is.”

The creative writing club’s meager length of chain was on a shelf near the windows. No sooner had I retrieved it than I forgot about it, catching sight of two police cars in the front parking lot. “Nik, look!” The officers were returning from their inspection of the school. We had almost missed our chance to get their attention.

We opened a window, but fearful of making noise, I blinked the flashlight at them instead. “Who’s there?” one of them called.

“Shhh!” Nik tried to wave them closer so we could keep the volume down. “Help! We’re being held against our will!”

There was a series of crashes from down the hall, followed by the sound of men rushing to investigate. “Was that Wrigley?” I whispered.

“Who is this? You can’t be here, you’re trespassing and there’s a curfew in effect.”

“My name’s Reid Emberley! We’re trapped in here with the guys who abducted my sister!”

“Show them your face, they put up posters and stuff,” urged Nik.

I turned the beam on my face. “That’s him,” said one, shocked. Their tone shifted as it dawned on them that they might actually be dealing with more than a couple of punk teenagers.

“Sit tight. We’re coming in.” They moved toward the main entrance.

“You can’t get to us that way,” said Nik. “You’ve gotta come in through this room. We — uh — How do we make this plausible?” he asked me under his breath.

“They’re watching all the ground floor entrances,” I ventured. “And you need backup! All the backup you can get. There’s a bunch of them and they’re armed.” Not in the conventional sense, perhaps, but whatever literal firepower Ennis was packing certainly counted.

“How many—”

Everything blacked out yet again.

“NO!”

We were back in an empty room, looking out on an empty parking lot. But something was different this time. Flashes of light from elsewhere were visible through the door, and the tell-tale racket of rooms switching seemed to be coming from all over the building. We felt the subtlest of tremors, like when you can’t quite be sure whether or not a mini-earthquake just passed you by.

Why. Why is nothing ever allowed to be easy.

More hubbub, running, and slamming of doors ensued out in the hall. “They took the link,” I heard Ennis saying breathlessly. “They’re both still here.

Nik ran for the door. “Come on!”

“What are you doing?” But he was already outside, our cover fully blown. Maybe I could have jumped out the window or hid in a corner and hoped no one would look in the room too closely, but I followed his lead before I had time to think it through.

We sprinted into the atrium and descended the stairs in flying leaps, nearly stumbling out of control. It sounded to me like they were on my heels the whole time, but looking back was out of the question. We made for the hallway to the lobby, where the lights were on and I could hear English voices. Two officers were approaching, guns drawn. I put on the brakes and threw my hands up, unsure if they knew we were the wrong people to shoot. “They’re behind us!”

One of them waved us forward and we dodged past them as they continued into the atrium, shouting the usual commands at our pursuers.

Fall back!” I heard from Ennis. “Fall back and get word to security. I’ll find —”

The lights went out, along with the officers’ voices, as the hall and lobby changed around us. Nik only slowed down after swerving into the athletics corridor, putting us back where we had started. “The fresh hell is going on?” he panted.

“I think Wrigley swiped their doohickey. Whatever they’ve been using to mess with this place. It’s out of control now. Is anyone coming for us here?”

“I don’t think so. Not yet.”

“Okay then, time to test this out.” I still had the chain segment from our classroom. “I don’t suppose you remember which groups are paired with creative writing?”

“You’re still on that? I have no idea.”

“I know this can work. Maybe. Just give me some space and let me know if anyone’s coming.”

This wasn’t the Institute Holistic. There was no web of premade mental connections this time for me to tap into. But some sort of connections still existed, I just had to dig deeper to activate them. Who got stuck with the wannabe writer nerds this semester? This is worse than a pop quiz, I shouldn’t even have to know this crap. I could barely be bothered to know which groups were paired with my basketball team.

Basketball. One memory triggered another and I flashed back to a conversation I’d overheard from the girls’ basketball team. It was them, they were creative writing’s patron group. And just as they had earned most of the loops of stapled ribbon I was holding, others had done the same for them. For all my past eye-rolling at the concept, now that I was under pressure to look at it from Esther’s viewpoint, I could see a degree of beauty in it. I held on to that viewpoint as we made for the suite of athletics offices, concentrating on the balance of giving and receiving that gave those flimsy loops their meaning.

Inside the offices, I scanned all around with the flashlight. A lot of teams kept their chains in here, but which office was Coach Fournier’s again?

“Either find it quick or come back for it,” said Nik. “We can’t stay here long.”

“Just a minute, it’s gotta be somewhere.” What did I get wrong?

“Let’s go. This way.” He was making for a little-used exit at the back of the suite.

“Wait — Yesss! I knew it!” My first hasty pass had missed the only decoration in the place: a peg in an inconspicuous corner with a sloppily-made length of chain hanging from it. “What did I tell you? Who’s the connection master?”

Reid!

The main door banged open and Ennis’s flashlight beam hit me right in the eyes. I backed away blindly, remembering too late to hide the two chains behind my back.

“I see. You really were paying attention.” He wasn’t attacking, just advancing steadily and speaking in a level voice. “The girl casts quite a shadow, doesn’t she?”

Something about his tone made me retreat more slowly than I should have. Was that sympathy or just pity?

“What if you didn’t have to keep living in it?”

I hated that I was listening to this bastard talking down to me. What galled me the most was that he had a point. As long as I was “the brother,” I could never really graduate from that shadow. It would live on long after we walked down the high school connector.

“You can go home right now and be free of all this. I’m not afraid of Roia, I’ll come up with some story for him. Just give back the box you took, take my advice, and let us do our job.”

I made a break for the back door that Nik was holding for me, which led to the maze known as the Student Resource Center. The twists and turns got us far enough ahead of Ennis to hide in a corner of Nik’s choosing, from which we doubled back to the athletics offices after he’d passed.

We heard heavy footsteps from above the ceiling, along with muffled voices and other incoherent sounds as the building continued its existential spasms. “I think that’s the cops upstairs,” said Nik. “Come on. If they find the library, we’ve gotta let them know what they’re getting into.”

“I’ll catch up. Just give me a minute here.”

He swallowed his exasperation, conceding that he didn’t have time to argue with me, and left for the nearest emergency stairwell.

I found an out-of-the-way corner in case anyone else came in and sat down to think. As exhilarated as I was by my success, trying to retrieve the chain piecemeal like this was no good. Even if we had the time, I couldn’t possibly remember all the individual connections. I’d have to summon the entire thing at once. Enough pieces of it would show up here that I could easily verify if it worked.

Something touched my arm. I jumped and swatted wildly, sending Wrigley tumbling across the floor. It bounced right back and tugged at my pant leg.

“Oh, look who decided to show up again. Not now, weirdo, I need to concentrate.” I crossed my legs like meditating people were supposed to do, held the chains in both hands, and tried to clear my mind.

I don’t care what you want her stupid legacy for, you can’t have it. Don’t act like you know me. I get enough of that here already.

I recalled every detail of Esther’s project I could, weeding out all the memories of snide and jaded reactions to it, trying to get at the essence of the thing. But disparate details and emotions weren’t getting me anywhere.

Come on, think like Essie. She’d see the big picture. Make yourself useful for once.

Goodness knows I’d listened to enough of her talking about her vision. I forced myself into what I imagined was her mindset, picturing her goal, her desire to make it real. Make it real! After a few minutes of this, I got up and searched the offices, checking everywhere I’d seen chain segments in the past.

Nothing.

Voices escalated somewhere in the distance, things were shattered and fell heavily to the floor. Evidently the police had found Ennis. And were those more sirens on the way?

If everyone would just shut up and hold still for two minutes…If I wasn’t so tired…

No. It wouldn’t matter. You could never pull this off. Don’t get your hopes up because you got lucky one time with one little piece.

It wasn’t fair to expect the same of him. He can’t help it he’s not like his sister. You should hear the horror stories about their eldest…”

I punched the wall, crushing loops of ribbon in my fist. This was pointless.

Wrigley prodded me again. “What?” I snarled.

Its back split open and an oblong shape emerged. It pushed the object further out until it dropped to the floor: a rectangular case of some transparent material.

“Is that the thing? What am I supposed to do with this?” I picked it up and examined it by flashlight. There was something inside the case that I couldn’t focus on, but the inscription on the outside quickly commandeered my attention anyway. Written in unknown characters, it was all legible except for one word. It signified a link, an overlap, between ––––– and a bounded space, presumably the one I was in right now. No wonder they were so concerned for it. If I was reading it right, this thing was the key to what was happening to the school. I wouldn’t have to think like Esther to hamper their bizarre operation if I could use this to knock it all down, cut it off at the source.

The excitement was enough to shake me out of my funk, reminding me that I should catch up to Nik. I ran into him at the top of the emergency stairs, on his way back to rejoin me and more aggravated than before. “The other library’s still there, but I can’t tell where anyone is. Everything’s changing randomly again and…” He trailed off when he saw the box. “What is that?”

“I dunno, but they want it and we’ve got it, and I know what to do with it. Are you okay?”

He appeared transfixed, staring with an odd expression halfway between eagerness and apprehension. “Yeah… This is where it’s coming from.”

“Your other feeling?” He nodded. “Is that good or bad?” He shrugged.

“Alrighty then. Here goes.” I lifted it over my head.

“Wait,” he said unsteadily, as if he didn’t know he was going to say it until the word was coming out of his mouth.

Wrigley was waiting expectantly near my feet, mostly amorphous except for a few limbs. As I dashed the box to the ground, it lunged beneath it, cushioning the impact. It reformed itself and stretched upward, extending the box back toward me. Clearly the direct approach wasn’t what it had in mind.

“You didn’t tell me your big plan was to smash it!”

“Why wouldn’t I? But if we’re not supposed to, Wrigley, there’s something else I could try.”

I closed my eyes. Forside was right: since arriving back here, I hadn’t been able to break ideas down like he’d taught me. But the whole purpose of this box and whatever it contained was to serve as a link to somewhere else. That just might make all the difference I needed.

It took more effort than before and I could only manage it for moments at a time, but it was possible. I shoved away all the thoughts of how I’d failed to connect the Spirit Chain and would fail equally here. This was a much simpler act in theory: the words of the inscription gave me a clear concept of the link itself; now I just needed a clear concept of what I was unlinking it from.

Even if I couldn’t see it the way Esther did, I knew this school. The hallways and common areas where friendships were solidified through goofing off and last-minute homework completion, the gym and locker room where I bonded with teammates, the classrooms where I had to grudgingly admit I’d learned some pretty cool things. I captured the chaotic whole that comprised them all. And for a moment I saw clearly, unobscured by any thoughts of shadows or siblings or expectations, that I was going to miss it.

I struggled to break the connection, to separate the two by pure willpower, until finally I went with what felt natural, stretched out my hand with the box in it, and suited the action to the thought, letting it go.

Again Wrigley scooted underneath it as it fell, this time to engulf it completely.

I knew it had worked before I opened my eyes. There were no more dramatic noises, no flashes of light or dark, only a scattering of ordinary fluorescent lights coming on. The overwhelming sensation was of release — that the school had been under tension this entire time and it had suddenly relaxed. Everything was back. We were back.

Wrigley churned, sprouted several more limbs, and ran off without ceremony, leaving the box on the floor. I finally noticed what was inside it: a squat, octagonal rod divided into eight interlocked segments in progressively darkening shades of blue.

Nik picked it up and said in a low voice, “It’s gone.”

The two of us shared a profound moment of relief, of quiet triumph, of reflection, of —

Ohcrapthedoor!

We raced to the library. The daylight of some other sun was still shining from it, but it was fainter now, and faltering. It wasn’t much of a jump to the conclusion that the experiment was being shut down.

From the sound of it, the police had returned to the first floor after what must have been a sanity-straining runaround of their own. “Up here! They’re getting away!” I shouted, and tugged at the door handle. I thought it was locked at first, but a second, harder pull opened it a fraction. I was fighting more than just the air pressure gradient this time.

Nik joined me, pulling on the door’s other leaf. If Roia and Caerd had called the thing off and all their people were back safely, there might not be anything we could do to keep the connection open, but that wouldn’t stop us from trying. Come to think of it, were we sure that all their people had made it back safely?

My answer was a click and a familiar whoosh from behind me. “Step away from there.”

Ennis approached us like a riding lawn mower approaches an especially obdurate weed patch. Though he looked physically unscathed from his run-in with Morrow Glen’s finest, his composure was thoroughly scathed. The small gadget he held, which I guessed was the equivalent of a lighter, was spitting out a growing flame that swirled around his hand.

Directly over his head, a ceiling tile was pulled aside and three tentacles shot down from the opening, one encircling each of his arms, one his neck. His flames released as his arm was jerked upward, sending them arcing past us in a jet that ignited a portion of a nearby bulletin board.

He fought back furiously, straining until a portion of the ceiling buckled, but Wrigley was anchored fast and steadily wrapping more of itself around him. He tore off the end of one tentacle, only for it to crawl back up his arm and rejoin the body elsewhere.

The fire alarm and emergency sprinklers went off. My shoes lost their traction as the floor flooded, causing my side of the door to slam shut. I got a grip on the jamb with one hand and dragged it back open with the other. The wind had died out but some other force was still at work, causing the metal around us to creak and the surface of the pooling water to vibrate, a resonant pattern converging on the threshold. Nik and I maneuvered ourselves in between the two leaves and braced against each other to prop them.

The library on the other side looked like we were seeing it through a telescope. The scene warped and flickered, giving me momentary glimpses of a room like a laboratory, then a wall of solid rock, then a range of wooded hills seen from high in the air, then more impenetrable blackness like I’d seen in the basement. I stared into it, fearful that if I looked away or even blinked, the connection would be lost and we’d be left sitting in a puddle outside our own library like a couple of chumps.

The cops were calling something to us from the stairs. “Over here!” Nik yelled. “Help! Child molester!”

Ennis choked out a “Hey!”

An officer appeared at the end of the hall, and at the same moment Wrigley let go of Ennis and retracted into the ceiling like a released stretch toy.

“Get on the ground!”

Ennis had already fallen to the ground, rubbing his throat, but he had no intention of staying there. He rolled to his feet and charged us, gathering another ball of flame in spite of the sprinklers.

Nik grabbed me by the shoulders and threw me to the floor an instant before the fire blast passed over us. No longer braced, the door swept us across its threshold, the world twisted around us for an instant, and we felt a final snap that was more than physical as it closed, leaving us on the wrong side.

Next:
13. Labyrinth

Previous:
11. Full Bohr

11. Full Bohr

After a good five minutes, we hadn’t seen any movement inside the building. We were crouching in the shadow of the NIELS BOHR MIDDLE SCHOOL sign out front, watching the upper hall of the math and science wing. We’d scouted the perimeter of the campus, which comprised both the middle school and Bohr High looming next door, and this was the only section that was lit. Nik was resisting all my proposals for going inside, claiming the place gave him a vague sense of trouble. I was less inclined to listen to him now that I could get a better look inside. The nearest classroom had enough light leaking into it from the hall that I could make out posters, file cabinets, and the digits of pi circling the top of the wall. We had a possible connection back to normal Morrow Glen.

“There! Listen,” Nik whispered. I heard it too: someone had just opened and closed a door.

“What if it’s just Mr. Geraghty working overtime?”

“I wouldn’t get this feeling from him.”

I had to concede this. While one could have said our custodian looked like a grave robber from an old horror flick if one was feeling unkind, we all knew he was harmless. “What are you getting it from then?”

“That’s not how it works, I’m not psychic. All I know is there’s something dangerous in there.”

“The feeling’s not full blast though, right? Are there levels? How dangerous would it be to just sneak in for a minute and get a closer look?”

“Or we could keep going and try to find that third light.”

“But it was sooo far! I bet we can’t even see it from here. And think about it: if the power’s on here, maybe the water fountains work too. Would it hurt to at least get closer so we can hear better?”

I left the shelter of the sign, still keeping to the shadows and unconsciously crouching as I crossed the lawn. The stark fluorescence falling on it in patches from the windows, unmitigated by any friendlier light, gave a hostile aspect to the backdrop we took for granted every weekday. Hence why I may have jumped harder than necessary when I drew near a tree and something rustled its upper branches.

At this point, my conditioned response to things in trees was to reach for my pepper spray, which of course was languishing under a smashed bookshelf somewhere in the great beyond. I backed off as the rustler swiftly climbed down into view.

Nik walked past me in my retreat, staring at the creature in pure fascination and ignoring me when I said, “Careful.” It perched on the lowest branch with a set of spindly legs that looked like they’d been stuck on hastily, generously, and without much concern for symmetry. The trunk of its body split into three flexible branches, each with a large convex bulge that glinted in the light like an array of lenses. One was pointed steadily at the building, one at us, and the third roved, scanning the area.

“It’s okay,” Nik said. “Is this your buddy from earlier?”

“Maybe?” I cautiously approached the tree again. “Uh, hi? Have we met before?”

Its eyestalk focused on Great Red, who was stretching himself out from Nik’s arm toward the tree. The surface of its body began to flex and tremble, then its whole outline blurred and broke apart into a swarming mass of tiny particles. Like a big gob of hot glue congealing as it dripped, the swarm coalesced below the branch, reforming itself into a narrow, flexible tube. One tapered end wrapped around the branch while the other widened out into a head — roughly the shape of a snake.

Nik’s round eyes grew rounder. “Have you seen this before?”

“…This one’s new.”

The shape continued to refine itself, the head growing a mouth and sharpening to a snout, a skin forming that approximated Red’s scales, though its color remained uniformly dark.

“I guess it could be the same one that led me to your neighborhood. Maybe there’s others. How would I know when it can Ditto itself into anything like that?”

The pseudo-snake regarded us coolly with a fresh pair of eyespots, then let go of the branch. Its form was already dilating and blurring on the way down, and on landing it burst apart, making me jump back. It was tricky to see in the poor light, but fragments of all sizes were scurrying around independently until they joined up and began making a new shape. We might be dealing not with one creature but many.

Once it had four serviceable legs on a torso, it trotted toward the entrance. I took a few steps after it, then looked back at Nik. “You coming?”

“I don’t know…”

“This thing — things? — or something like it led me to you in the first place. It may not be smart enough to talk, but it knows stuff. You stay out here if you want, I’m taking the chance.”

The door, as I’d come to expect, was unlocked. I opened it in time to save the My Little Hellspawn the trouble of fully dissociating to trickle through the gap at the bottom. “You’re welcome,” I whispered as it scurried past my feet and into the lobby.

After easing the door silently shut, I crept closer to the nearest hallway, staying close to the wall. I held my breath in the dark and listened for any sign of movement besides the soft pattering of makeshift appendages down by my feet. The now-familiar feeling of disconnection was faint but growing slowly stronger the farther in I went.

After a few minutes of listening, I felt confident enough to venture down the hall toward the gym and turn on the flashlight, shielded by my hand. Everything was predictably bare, and the water fountains maddeningly dry. There was nothing here worth exploring. I’d have to get closer to the lighted area and whoever was in it.

I turned to go back but stopped in my tracks at the sound behind me. From out of sight around a corner of the hall I could hear a concerted clattering of metal, building in volume along with a growing light. The light turned the corner before I could run, an intensely bright ripple that swept down the hall’s length, slamming all the locker doors as it passed and leaving a momentary blackness in its wake. Silence resumed, not counting the racket that was my heart ricocheting off my rib cage.

I took some long breaths, tried to get a grip — and the security alarm went off.

The sanity–and eardrum–fraying blasts of sound were accompanied by violently blinking lights. Once my wits returned, I could see with each flash that my surroundings had dramatically changed. The lockers had locks on them. One had a shoelace caught in its door, and another had been covered in gift wrap for someone’s birthday, which had subsequently been shredded by bored passersby. There were posters and fliers on the walls — in short, I was back in the Bohr Middle I knew and tolerated.

On the Viking Pride wall, the framed photos and display cases commemorating sports victories were all back — almost all, rather. I couldn’t be bothered to check more closely when there was a water fountain nearby.

I don’t have any similes for how the water tasted. If you’ve ever been that thirsty, you already know. All that mattered was it was cold and pure and kept coming for as long as I held the button down. Once I was sufficiently waterlogged, I spotted the next miracle through the window of a coach’s office: the wonderfully dull glow of sodium street lamps outside.

The office was locked, but there was an exit door down at the corner. I ran for it, stomach sloshing.

EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY — ALARM WILL SOUND

A little late for that. I burst out onto the sidewalk by the faculty parking lot. Across the field, past a fence and a belt of trees, shone the lights of houses. The crickets’ droning and the distant white noise of cars instantly joined my short list of contenders for sweetest sound. I may have choked up a little.

For a moment, I followed my instinct and broke into a stumbling run away from the school. But Nik was still on the other side.

“AaaaAAGH!” See where putting all your faith in your Spidey-sense gets you? I had to go back for him.

The emergency door, likely my only way back in, had almost swung shut. With a frenzied sprint and a dive, I got a forearm into the gap before it closed.

Once inside, I took a moment to inspect the sports wall more closely when I passed it. I was right, there was a picture missing from the orderly rows, something I probably wouldn’t have given a second thought on its own. But that particular section of wall was one I’d cultivated a habit of ignoring over the past two years. A quick sweep with the flashlight confirmed it: the missing picture was of Esther’s gymnastics team.

I got the strangest of pits in my stomach. Making sense of it would have taken up valuable escaping-to-reality time.

Before I got halfway to the lobby, Nik appeared at the other end of the hall and caught sight of me. He caught sight of the drinking fountain a microsecond later, which put escaping on hold for a bit.

“What did you do?” he gasped when he was done making out with the fountain.

“Nothing, I was stealthy as all hell! The place just changed out of nowhere, then the alarm went off.”

“That’s why I came to find you. The front door wasn’t closed all the way, that might be it.”

“But listen, I found a way — ”

“Oh, and I found another one.” He pointed behind him to what I’d assumed was the same animal/s that had entered with me, only now in a more streamlined (and six-legged, I noticed) form. As he said this, the first creature reappeared in the lobby from wherever it had wandered off to. It immediately scuttled toward its counterpart, which was breaking down into a semi-blob. They both dissolved at the edges and began to merge. We knelt to look closer and could just barely make out the mite-like things that composed them crawling over each other and interlinking. There may be more unsettling things to watch under a strobing alarm light, but I’m hard pressed to think of any.

The new entity pulsated, stretched itself several times, and stood up on three fresh legs, just under twice as tall as before.

The many questions I had were all shoved out of my mind when I heard another approaching wave of clattering. We’d wasted too much time. “Oh no, no. Come on!” I bolted for the exit, Nik’s long legs catching up to me in no time despite my head start. But before we could reach it, the pulse of light and slamming lockers followed by blackness passed over us, with the alarm cutting out shortly after.

I flung the door open, knowing what would be outside it. We were back in the dead, empty world.

“Shhh!” Nik tried to silence my stream of expletives or at least keep the volume down. “They probably already know we’re here, what with the alarm. Don’t tell them where!”

“I was so close! We were almost back!”

“If it changes that fast, we might get another chance. Or we can try a different part of the school.”

The conglomerate creature accompanied us deeper into the building, having sprouted some more legs and keeping itself long and low to the ground. “Is this guy our pet now?”

“I’ve got enough already,” said Nik. “This one’s yours.”

“Do you think they just fused or were they already part of the same…the same — you know, we really need a name for it.”

“Boy or girl, you think?”

“I’m not checking, ick. And I bet it could be both if it wanted.”

“Any ideas then?”

“We could just go with Ditto.”

“Not very original. What about Wrigley?”

“What, like the gum?”

“Or because of, you know, wriggling.”

“Does he really wriggle, though? It’s more of a — ”

“Shhh! Hold up!” We were approaching the open, two-story central area of the school, which was dominated by a wide set of stairs and a balcony walkway on the second level. It was dimly lit from upstairs but still empty of the usual chairs, tables, and decorations. Men’s voices reached us, faint but growing.

“This way.” I followed Nik down the hall leading to the arts wing, while he glanced from side to side at potential hiding spots and muttered to himself, “Not there, not there…” The voices were getting closer. I strained to make out even a word or two of what they said, but I wasn’t getting any of it.

He carefully opened the door to a stairwell and descended to the basement level, where it dead-ended at a mechanical room. We slipped into the space under the stairs and waited.

Two voices approached the door above us. There was a brief exchange, and one set of footsteps continued down the hall. The door opened and a beam of light entered the stairwell.

I inched toward the mechanical room door and slowly turned its handle, thinking anything would be better than getting trapped in a corner like this. I resisted opening it when Nik put a forestalling hand on me. The man above us hesitated for an awful moment, then his footsteps began climbing toward the second floor.

Nik crept back up to the first floor landing to listen better. I was still gripping the door handle next to me, and for curiosity’s sake I swung it partially open as soon as the slamming of the second-floor door told us we were alone.

Wind brushed past me and into the opening, and I felt noticeably colder. Before I even clicked the flashlight on to look, I could sense the emptiness like vertigo. Beyond the threshold there were no walls or floor, only a drop-off into absolute blackness. I turned the beam every which way, but it penetrated no more than a few inches. There was nothing for it to illuminate. Still, it was hard to look away from that nothing.

If every public school had one of these underneath it, I somehow felt that might explain a lot.

“You don’t want to go that way.” Nik was leaning over the railing trying to beckon me up.

“Yeah, I got that,” I said, still staring. I finally shut the door and followed him.

From the sound and light farther down the hall, it appeared that the second man was searching the band room for us. Before we could get far in the opposite direction, Nik changed course again, ducking into the teachers’ lounge. Almost as soon as I followed him in, we heard the man reemerge into the corridor.

There came yet another pulse of light and dark, after which the fluorescents outside the room flickered on. In the glow from around the edges of the door, we got our first, dim view of the room that was our teachers’ secret hideout, now fully furnished. It was mostly disappointing, with one exception: the refrigerator.

“It’s not safe to leave yet?” I whispered. Nik shook his head, corralling his agitated snakes back into their pockets.

“Would opening the fridge blow our cover?”

He put an ear to the door. “Go for it.”

Desperate times demand desperate measures. If you ever read this, Mr. Muranaka, I’m sorry. Your chicken salad went to a good cause and could have used more dressing. A similar apology to the owners of all the unlabeled leftovers we raided.

“Are you hungry, little guy?” I asked the creature who’d followed us in. “What do you even eat?”

“He still needs a name. You haven’t said what you think of Wrigley.”

“I think it’s a snake name you were kicking around before your dragon obsession and you’ve been waiting for something to use it on, but I don’t have anything better.”

“Hey, do something if you want us to call you Wrigley.”

It cocked its “head” at him, like it heard but couldn’t yet understand. He held a palm out in front of it. “How about it?” It extruded a crude palm of its own, which he high-fived. “Good enough. Wrigley it is.”

Not sure if or when we would get another chance like this, I got greedy and gathered up some pieces of fruit from the fridge and miscellaneous snacks I found in cupboards. I unzipped the backpack to stash them for later, and flinched when I saw something move inside. It was the talisman.

When I pulled them out, the linked leather medallions were twitching. I let them dangle and they swayed back and forth of their own accord, then came to rest at a slight upward angle like a steel chain near a magnet. “I knew it,” I whispered.

“What?”

“Whatever’s going on here has something to do with Essie. I think I’m picking up a connection to her.”

He shushed me again. The man who’d been looking for us down the hall was returning. As we moved farther away from the door and waited for him to pass, I felt the talisman pull a different way. Then it relaxed, swung freely again, and stiffened in an entirely new direction. What could it be latching on to besides its missing half or its owner?

Questions would have to wait. Once the coast was clear, we stepped out and moved toward the nearest exit, the courtyard doors by the central staircase. We passed a scattering of photocopied fliers reading WE CAN LIVE IN A WORLD THAT WE DESIGN or UNLEASH YOUR TRUE SELF, put up by the kids who were trying to start a Transcenders Fellowship student group. Nik tore them all down.

My attention was elsewhere. Since noticing the missing picture, I was forcing myself to look for all the things about this school that I’d become an expert at avoiding: the marks Esther had left on it.

The idea was that if I didn’t notice them, didn’t point them out or draw any attention to them in connection with myself, maybe someday the rest of the school would stop doing it. And to some extent, it had worked. These days the adults didn’t mention Esther in the same breath as me anywhere near as often, but it had taken a couple years of letting their expectations down. I personally thought they should have gotten the memo a lot sooner, but hope dies hard.

Near the end of the hall was a wide display case labeled BOHR MIDDLE WALL OF LEADERSHIP, honoring students who made some outstanding contribution to the school or the community. As we approached, I was mildly surprised at how much I hoped the Esther Emberley section would still be there.

This time hope died fast. Her name, all the text and pictures, and the local newspaper clipping were gone without a trace except for a speckling of pinholes on the blank red background.

That weird pit in my stomach got deeper, and now I began to suspect that what was making it so weird just might be a touch of guilt.

Nik and Wrigley walked right on by while I stood gaping. He looked back and whispered, “What are you doing?”

“Look at this! They took her down. Are they trying to erase her from the school?”

“We gotta move.”

“What if it’s not just pictures and stuff? What if they can actually make us forget her?” My travels had messed with my memory enough to convince me it might be possible. A thought crossed my mind that has never really left it since, one that still churns out the occasional nightmare: Who’s to say it doesn’t happen to people all the time? We’d never know.

“Reid, they’ll find us, we have to go now,” Nik hissed.

When we emerged into the open space around the stairs, now furnished and back to its regular self, it looked like we had a straight shot across it to freedom. We broke into a run, but we were too late. Nik was almost there, outpacing me by a good margin, when a surprisingly tall man wearing overalls, what looked like a tool belt, and a stern expression stepped into view between us and the exit. Nik cut to the right and made for the lobby only to be blocked by a second, almost equally tall man with a gray beard and a complicated pair of goggles. Overalls advanced toward me, forcing me back and cutting me off from Nik. I turned back the way we’d come to find that yet another man had moved in to block that hallway. This one looked younger than the other two, wearing a kind of vest and with his hair in a short ponytail, and yes, he was also vertically gifted.

They approached us slowly, methodically, each of them with a beam of light trained on one of us. Wrigley was nowhere in sight. The talisman in my hand was flipping erratically back and forth.

Ponytail spoke to us, harsh and distinct, but to my dismay I still couldn’t understand any of it. It didn’t sound like any language I’d heard on Var or Earth. Overalls said something as well, equally incomprehensible. It finally clicked for me that here, in my own domain, all my inwords might not have any effect.

Goggles must have acquired some of his own, because we both got the gist when he spoke. “How did you get in here?”

“This is our school,” I said.

“Yeah, how did you get in here?”

He said a few things I missed, then, “Stay where you are.”

There was another flash, a rattling of doors and windows, and everything went black. I heard a set of sprinting footsteps that had to be Nik, followed immediately by what sounded like Overalls and Goggles scrambling to try and intercept him in the dark. I picked a direction, begged my spatial memory not to fail me, and ran.

After the Columbine massacre a year ago, my main friend group and I had spent more time than was healthy discussing how we would evade and bring down a shooter at our school. A disproportionate number of our fantasy scenarios involved this part of the building, though of course now all the furniture we planned to use for cover had just vanished. There remained an odd freestanding wall that ran parallel to the stairs with shoulder-high openings in it, an architect’s statement of something or other. That wall, the staircase itself, and the columns around the room’s edge were the only real cover available.

I made for the space between the stairs and the freestanding wall, which had a few seconds ago been occupied by a handful of study tables and chairs. Our vision was back but we were still in near-total darkness, filled with the echoes of everyone else’s running and confused shouting. Judging by Ponytail’s flashlight beam, he had retreated toward the nearest hall to cut me off if I tried to escape that way. Seeing that I hadn’t, he now ran out into the middle of the floor, sweeping his light in all directions.

Overalls and Goggles had gone after Nik into the language arts wing, and it might sound bad but I wasn’t overly worried about him. He could sense danger and was one of the fastest kids in school. I had a backpack full of useless items and an apparently busted talisman. I was almost certainly in more trouble on my own than he was.

It seemed these people didn’t have a way to track us like Neery and Bugsen, or to shift rooms around. All they could presumably do was switch parts of this space from one state to the other, if in fact anyone was controlling the transitions. It was hard to tell. The point was, they were on our turf, and as long as we could avoid detection by normal means, we had a chance.

The wall was still shielding me from Ponytail’s searching flashlight, but he was closing in, circling around toward the foot of the stairs. I backed away and slipped into the shadows under the staircase just before he shone his light into my former hiding spot. The talisman was wadded up in my hand to keep it from flapping and possibly making a sound. With every move, I had to be careful not to let the contents of the backpack jostle against each other too much.

After a pause, he advanced toward me, forcing me to move to the opposite side of the staircase. I was prepared to go around the mulberry bush like this as many times as I had to, but after checking under the stairs, he seemed satisfied and took off to search the lobby area.

All the lighted sections of the ground floor had gone dark. Even if we made it out of the building, we likely wouldn’t be any closer to home. The only light I could see was coming from upstairs, and all the enemies I’d seen were downstairs. No-brainer.

I hurried up the steps as lightly as I could and paused at the top to consider my options. To my left was the long passage connecting us to Bohr High, which for once in my time at this school looked like a viable escape from something. But the talisman was twitching harder in my hand now. I let it hang free and it stretched out taut, tugging me firmly to the right. It had finally made up its mind.

Footsteps and voices were returning downstairs, and I had nowhere to hide on the balcony. With no time left to deliberate, I went with the talisman.

It led me into the second floor main hallway, which was barren and featureless except for a pool of light — not fluorescent, but yellow, almost natural-looking — outside the doors to the library. I approached on tiptoe, hugging the wall, and got just close enough to view a slice of room through the glass.

There was still a library on the other side, that much was clear. But it was neither my school library nor any western-hemisphere Earth library, not if that really was daylight streaming in through the nearest window. The ceiling was high, the shelves imposing and made of carved wood, and here and there they contained scrolls mixed in with more conventional books. Some of those books looked so antique you could go to jail just for opening them. As impressive as parts of the Institute Holistic had been, this was a class of library I exclusively associated either with Hogwarts or with a typical British person’s country manor.

Maybe it was the sleep deprivation, but when I didn’t hear anyone inside, I decided to risk a closer look. The door, though unlocked, took some effort to open. Air rushed in as soon as I cracked it, more aggressively than in the basement — I was fighting a difference in pressure. I slipped through and tried unsuccessfully to close it without slamming.

I was mildly disoriented at first. Each step felt ever so slightly like being on a down elevator. I didn’t think too hard about it, chalking it up to the effects of crossing over rather than considering nerd things like gravity.

The walls and floor were made of what looked like smooth, dark gray stone. This end of the room was apparently a reading area with tables and some expensive-looking but comfortably worn seating, all a little too high off the ground.

The talisman pointed toward the other end of the room. Having no better ideas of where to go, I continued following it, staying between rows of shelves. It wasn’t long before I heard voices, a man’s and a woman’s. They were almost certainly speaking the same language as the men downstairs, only now I could understand more of it.

“…dealing with intruders…main bond focus…complete separation without any further disruption…”

If I hadn’t been so intent on their conversation, I might have paid better attention to my surroundings. A blade pricked the side of my neck and a hand gripped my shoulder from behind. Someone had entered through another door and snuck up on me. When I jumped, the blade pressed harder. “Still,” a female voice ordered.

“Who’s there?” called the man.

“We have a visitor!” The woman behind me shoved me forward, all the way to the end of the shelves and out into the open, to face two looming figures across a massive table.

“…The brother.”

“We were wondering what became of you.”

“You know what, I have a name.”

“I apologize, Master Reid.” Only then did I realize they were speaking to me in perfect English. “You’ve caught us in the middle of a pressing — and I’m afraid still experimental — operation. We’ll have to forgo the usual hospitality.”

Next:
12. Class of 2000 and Never

Previous:
10. Hollow Glen

10. Hollow Glen

Wind. Hot, dry, relentless, and familiar. Familiar was good. Anything I could feel, identify, make sense of was good. If I’d been able, I would have caught hold of the wind the same way I was clenching handfuls of the grass under me — normal, bladed, mildly scratchy Earth grass, not the soft stringy stuff I’d been getting used to.

Awareness was coming in waves, like fading in and out of sleep on a Saturday with no alarm clock, except with a face full of lawn and a mind full of inexpressible terror. Only once my body got the memo and dutifully flooded with stress hormones did the awareness stick. I rolled over, spat out a grass blade, and sat up, heart racing and muscles jittery.

The fear and confusion that had followed me back from the map’s edge near Camp Outlook had begun to fade as soon as I was taking in things I could recognize. This time it was more penetrating and persistent, remaining with me even as I took in the view that had greeted me every day for almost six years. Barring any reality-hole-induced hallucinations, I was sitting dazed on the front lawn of my house in Morrow Glen, CA, USA, Earth.

“Sem?”

Neither she nor anyone else was around to hear. It wasn’t unusual for my street to be dead quiet and empty of people at midday, though I would have expected to see at least a few cars. Even the immovable El Camino two doors down was absent from its driveway for the first time since we’d moved in. But I didn’t waste any time pondering curiosities. As soon as I convinced myself I was really back, I made for the front door.

It was unlocked. “Mom! Dad! Tori!”

There they all were waiting for me, even Esther, and we had a good laugh as I told them all about the trippy dream I’d had while passed out on the front lawn. I never forgot the lessons I learned that day about appreciating family members and the importance of hydrating before pickup basketball games.

I didn’t make it past “M—”.

When I say the house was empty, I don’t just mean no one was home. It was as bare as the first time I’d set foot in it. At first, as I ran bewildered through every room, it looked like no one had ever lived there. Then I began to notice subtle traces here and there, like the door I’d helped Dad install on the laundry room, or the poorly patched dent Esther had put in the dining room wall during one of our more brutal Nerf wars with Tori.

I still had the backpack and everything from Var. My watch once again told me it was a few minutes past midnight on Sunday, January first. And aside from the high position of the sun, there was nothing to tell me otherwise.

The existential panic faded out just in time for a more grounded and specific variety to take over. The street sign and house number confirmed that this was 618 Tilton Street, but it wasn’t my home. Not without Dad’s beachcombing relics and metal detectors that had yet to turn up anything but soda cans for me; without any of Tori’s odds and ends in random places, from handcuffs to boomerangs; without Mom’s goofy sculptures from college or my shrine of all the autographed hockey memorabilia my grandparents kept sending me. I’d even have been happy to see Esther’s shelves full of trophies again. Instead I had to settle for traces of the gouge in the wall where I’d tried to pull them down years ago, which was no comfort.

All the neighbors’ houses I checked were the exact same. There was no electricity or running water to boot. After the fifth try, I sat down on the sidewalk and tried to calm down.

There must have been an evacuation since I left. Another earthquake? Then why no structural damage? And why, as I forced myself to keep quiet and listen, could I hear nothing but wind and leaves? Not only was the constant background of car noise gone, but there were no birds or insects.

I got up and started walking fast, breaking into an occasional run. Whatever had happened, if it wasn’t all in my mind, must have only cleared out my neighborhood. There was no way it could be like this —

Everywhere. Everywhere I passed through it was the same: streets and structures perfectly intact, all the familiar trees and plants, and not a sign of life otherwise. Not so much as a lizard or stray ant.

By the time I drew near the center of town, my feet were getting sore from walking and my head from rationalizing. Also presumably from dehydration. The only water I’d come across was in drainage ditches by the road and a moderate trickle in the glorified flood control channel we called an arroyo, but I wasn’t that desperate just yet.

The first hint that I might not be alone came at Vista Mesa Park, the sprawling backyard of the community rec center where Esther, Trina, and I had done so many summer programs. As I was trudging past a row of shrubs along the sidewalk, something rustled inside them. I moved toward it more quickly than was judicious and must have spooked it, because it burst out of its hiding place and took off across the field.

It was really tearing along too, on a pair of gangly legs like a roadrunner’s, though without any feathers or other birdlike features I could make out. It was about a foot and a half tall, with a compact little body and pointy head, all colored the same dusty gray and brown as every camouflaged animal in the hills.

“Hey, wait! Sorry!” Determined not to lose the only other sentient thing in this daymare of a suburb, I hurdled the bushes and jogged after it. “I’m not gonna hurt you.” (I mostly meant that, although my stomach was getting empty and I hadn’t seen anything edible so far. I couldn’t help wondering for a fleeting second how this little guy would taste.) “We’ve got to stick together, us…still-existing…living things.”

It stopped and swiveled its head to look straight back at me. Not like a twitchy bird glancing over its shoulder for danger, but a response. It then ran at a more leisurely clip back in my direction. Just as I was remembering the relevant scenes from Jurassic Park and wondering if if I’d made a mistake, it halted a couple of yards away.

I mentioned that it looked at me, but now that it was up close, I couldn’t make out any actual eyes in its head. Some rounded symmetrical spots on either side might have served it in that capacity. It gave a sort of chirp and extended a small appendage toward me.

“Holy cow. You got something to tell me? Can you understand me?”

It turned, jerked its head in the direction of the Alta Heights neighborhood, and scampered off. I didn’t see any choice but to follow. It seemed smarter than a normal animal, not quite smart enough for language perhaps, but it knew something I didn’t. As long as it stayed friendly and didn’t summon a pack of its little buddies to go procompsognathus on me, I’d play along.

It paused every so often to check that I was still following — without turning its head, I noticed. I got the distinct impression that its shape was no longer exactly the same as when I’d first seen it. “It’s okay,” I muttered. “You’ve seen weirder things.”

Yeah, but weird isn’t supposed to happen here.

Alta Heights was possibly the geographically lowest point in town, situated so that everyone else could look down on it literally as well as figuratively. I lost sight of the critter after walking only a short way into it. When shouting for it produced no response, I tentatively kept going.

The first thing I’d thought of while approaching the old neighborhood was Nik’s house. I didn’t visit often: Mom didn’t like me spending time in this part of town, Nik didn’t like my heinous attempts at flirting with his sister, Jess didn’t like being heinously flirted with, and we had better video games at my house anyway. Still, I was familiar enough with it to feel the urge for a quick peek. It would only be another disappointment, I knew.

I had just admitted with a heavy heart that tracking down my little mutant spirit animal guide should be my priority when I heard one of the sweetest sounds of my life, a very close challenger to that first intelligible sentence from Forside. A screen door slamming, two rows of houses away.

Given that the wind and any number of inhuman agents are perfectly capable of slamming screen doors, you might call me overly optimistic for sprinting ecstatically toward the noise. And unless you too have been transported to a ghost town all on your own with no explanation or apparent way out, I must request that you kindly shut your face.

I rounded the corner onto Nik’s street (Please let it be his house, please please please). His place looked typically deserted from the outside and through the blinds of the front windows, but I wasn’t ready to give up. I prowled around it as quietly as I could, not for fear of being heard but for fear of missing the next sound. It didn’t take long; I had almost reached the back of the house when I heard the bump of dresser drawers coming from inside.

I ran for the back door, shouting, “Hello? Nik?” No answer. I opened it onto the empty kitchen and yelled even louder, “Mrs. Alwyn! Jess? Anyone?” Silence.

“I’m coming in!” All the rooms in sight were bare. Had I been hearing things? If so, it was still happening. A bedspring creaked, there was a slight thump and a metallic scraping from the end of the hall that I hadn’t inspected yet.

Like a castaway seeing a ship, I reached the hall and saw Nik’s bedroom at the other end, the door partially open. And out of the entire house — the entire town — it still looked like a place someone lived in.

Nik!

He was just back from track practice, sprawled on his bed with his running clothes in a heap on the floor, textbooks spilling half out of his bag. He’d just opened one of the two terraria that dominated the wall behind the bed to take out Orm Embar, his black rat snake. He was also blissfully ignoring me. Orm turned his head toward me briefly, but I couldn’t tell if that meant anything. Could snakes even hear?

Only at this point did it occur to me that I might be dead.

Again, shut your face.

The afterlife was a raw deal if I could still get footsore and hungry in it. If Nik was the only person I could see, I would find a way to mess with him, maybe get some cryptic messages across. But if I had to be stuck haunting one person, why couldn’t it have been my seventh grade English teacher or one of those cretins from the school baseball team?

By this point I’d already barged down the hall and into his room. He was turned away from the door, still unresponsive to anything I said. I took a deep breath, suddenly scared to find out whether I would go through him, strode up to the bed, and clapped him on the shoulder with one final “HEY!”

The poor kid almost chucked Orm across the room, he jumped so hard. His other reflex was to swing out with his free arm and clock me square in the gut. From there our touching reunion consisted of me doubled over groaning and him crouched on his bed cussing me out, as bug-eyed and discombobulated as I’d ever seen him.

Reid? Where did you come from? What happened to knocking?

“Nice to see you too,” I half wheezed, half laughed.

“…not enough for you to send everyone into this mass panic hysteria, you had to sneak in here and — the crap are you wearing?”

I finally realized how odd I must look in my outfit from Brenest: the coarse pants woven from waterproof plant fiber, shapeless lightweight shirt, and long-sleeved green woodsman’s jacket I had tied around my waist on account of the heat. “You don’t like it? I’m an adventurer now. You gotta see it with the cloak to get the full effect. Here — aw, right, I lost the cloak —”

“Forget the cloak! Everyone’s been losing their minds for the last two days!”

“Two days? I’ve been gone for —” I remembered my watch was no longer giving me instant time updates, checked it manually, and remembered it had reset — “like eleven days.” Eleven Var days, whatever that comes out to.

“Are you high? It’s been two days. You and Esther are all anyone’s talking about. There’s cops everywhere, search parties — some kids didn’t even show up to school because their parents wouldn’t let them out of sight. Trina and I are busted for the camping trip, if you were wondering. We both got questioned and we had to tell them everything.”

If it’s possible to be nostalgic for something two weeks/days ago, I got nostalgic for the halcyon days when being busted registered on my list of worries.

“Where were you? Where’s Esther?”

“Okay, I can try and explain one of those, but I’ve got bigger problems first. Like seeing if I’m an actual brain-melted lunatic or not. Come.” Ignoring all further outbursts, I dragged him into the hall by the wrist. I had to know what the world looked like to him.

His stupefaction on seeing the rest of the house told me everything I needed to know. The bedroom door clicked shut behind us as he darted from room to room with mounting alarm. “Jess?” he called, rapping on her door.

“Nik, they’re not — ”

Jessica!” He switched to pounding, then threw the door open, froze, and ran back down the hall shouting, “Tanya!

I couldn’t tell whether to be more relieved that I wasn’t going irredeemably bonkers or worried that the two of us were now in the same boat. After a minute of standing in the hall thinking in circles, I gave up trying to make sense of it for now and went to reel Nik in.

“They were both here,” he said wildly. “Tanya and I just got home, I could hear the TV, Jess was on the phone in her room, then you popped up.”

He was panicked, but not in quite the same bewildered floundering way I’d been. Underneath his confusion was the kind of paralysis that comes from something you’ve been expecting, something you’ve had the time to dread. “This can’t be it,” he was muttering to himself as we returned to his room, gripping his snake a little too tightly lest she disappear as well. “There should have been some warning, I thought we had more time, I’m not ready…”

He opened his door and froze again. Only one thing remained in the bedroom we had left fully furnished and lived in: his other pet, a kingsnake named Great Red, crawling casually on the carpet beneath where his tank used to be. Otherwise, it had become as much of a shell as the rest of the town and, for all we knew, the world.

“Reid…what did you do to me?”

If I’d been hoping for a link back to the normal world, I had achieved the exact opposite. Nik was now trapped here with me.

After going through an abridged version of the same stages I had, after seeing the outside for himself and accepting my assurances that it really was like this everywhere, he was ready to slow down and talk things over sensibly. Either that or we were both ready to go bonkers together, which I still considered an improvement.

He sat with his snakes on the low brick wall of his neighbor’s yard while I paced in front of him, thinking of how to make what I had to say remotely plausible. “Okay. You’ve heard of parallel worlds, right? Neverending Story, Narnia…Half-Life. That kind of thing. That may not be exactly what’s going on, but I gotta start somewhere.”

“You went there?” Instead of the skepticism I was expecting, he immediately leaned forward, his eyes drilling into mine. “What was it like?”

“Imagine Humboldt County but like, insane, and with monsters. I almost died so many times, you have no idea. Although the whole place wasn’t like that, just the part I spent the most time in. You’d probably love it there with all the weird animals, it’s like they took the training wheels off evolution.”

“Sure…” He looked more deflated than excited at my description, but he was still hungry for information. “Is Esther still there?”

It was my turn to deflate. “She wasn’t with me. We think she got taken to a different domain — a different world.”

“You got back by yourself?”

“Don’t sound so surprised. I mean, I did find a few adults who helped, but one of them ditched me and the other two…I just hope they’re still alive.”

“So how did you get back?”

“Fell down an institutional hole.”

“Down a what of a what now?”

“Long story.”

He looked down the deserted street in both directions, then pointedly back at me. “You got somewhere to be?”

“That thing she said about her city. Was there any more to it?”

“She said a lot of things about everything. I can try and summarize, but bear in mind I’m probably butchering it. She said…a city is a relationship. Places can remember what they were made for, but if people aren’t doing their thing and keeping it all together, it just becomes a bunch of pieces. Like the Institute. It stayed what it was because of all the work she put into it. Of course, Bugsen was still able to slide right in and jack it all up in basically no time.”

“I need you to know that every time you say ‘Bugsen,’ all I’m picturing is Bugs Bunny.”

“Good.”

“Which still isn’t as moronic as you trying to fight them with tampons.”

“A, number one, we refer to them as absorbers,” I said loftily. “Don’t go disdaining on them, they’re versatile. B, number two, it could have worked. Maybe.”

We had walked and talked our way to the market a few blocks away from Alta Heights. The facade of the main building included a set of roofed turrets, and while any reasonable person would assume they were there for zombie/Y2K apocalypse defense practice, the management insisted they were just decoration and no one was allowed up there. With no management in sight, we’d found a way up to one of them and were now targeting the parking lot’s light poles with pieces of roof gravel as we continued our conversation. Great Red was coiled comfortably around Nik’s shoulders while Orm made himself at home in the crevices of my cast-off jacket.

“You really think you could have picked up Esther’s trail if those guys hadn’t shown up?”

“If Sem knew what she was talking about.” I added under my breath, “It’s not like anyone else did.”

“That’s annoying that there was nothing in her journal.”

“Doesn’t mean she didn’t write anything in it, I just couldn’t…” I stopped short, realizing that the journal was now an ordinary book again. I whipped it out and —

“Oh come on!” Esther’s neat, expansive handwriting was indeed there on the pages, but so were all my writings and drawings, directly on top of it. We could only make out words here and there. Nik gave me a look when we got to the page entirely filled by my picture of a shark eating a surfboard.

“Well, I wouldn’t have colored it in if I’d known, would I…look, there was a long wagon ride, I got bored. Sue me.”

“I guess none of her stuff is going to be much use then if it’s all back to normal.”

“There is one thingy I got that’s from another another domain. It might work here. Maybe we can use it to find someone.” I began rifling through the backpack looking for Forside’s locator before I remembered. “Ah, crapsicles, I gave it to Sem. Man, I hope she’s okay.”

“If that hole you fell in spit you out at home, kind of, maybe the same thing happened to her?”

I had a vision of her wandering a hollow version of So Ameda and never knowing the difference. To banish that depressing thought, I turned to the practical. “Even without my locator, I still found you. This is a big town, there must be at least a few more like you out there that we can find.”

“Like me,” he said quietly. “Yeah, about that…There may not be anyone else like me.”

“What does that mean?”

“I was trying to think of a good way to tell you, since today’s the day for dumping crazy news on people.” He let out a long breath through his teeth. “I’m not from here.”

“Duh.”

“Not from Earth, Reid.”

Facing him in silence, I discovered that no amount of strange new encounters can prepare you for the moment the old and familiar suddenly becomes the strange encounter.

“You’re from another domain,” I said slowly.

“If that’s what you want to call it.”

“You’re — I — ”

He kept quiet and gave me space to come to grips, looking away and stroking Great Red anxiously.

“Since when?”

“Since ninety-one.”

“I thought you were adopted from Pakistan! Even the teachers think so.”

“When did I ever say that?”

“You totally…um, wait. Give me a second.”

“Better question. Where did you first hear that rumor?”

“I dunno. Martha, probably.”

“You really think Martha knows what a Pakistani looks like? She made it up, or someone else did and she passed it on.”

“And you just went along with it?”

“I never denied it. It was easier than making something up myself. I was grateful, really — just had to do enough research to answer the same three or four questions you guys would ask.”

“I asked more questions than that.

“Which is why —”

“— you started saying you were too little to remember!” It was finally making sense, the hidden layer of Nik that had kept me curious all these years. It was easy enough to buy the nationality the rumor mill had assigned him, because I couldn’t have guessed with any confidence. With his dark skin and hair, something African or vaguely Middle Eastern would have been the limit of my conjecture, but the truth was he didn’t quite have the features of any race I recognized. Because of course he wouldn’t.

“Oh, shoot. Are you an alien?”

“No!”

“You can tell me! Is that why you’re so flexible? Please tell me you’re one of those robots with a little dude in your head.”

“Even more no.”

“How do we prove it, though? Let’s see, everyone knows robots don’t have boogers…”

“Want me to blow my nose on you, dingus? Keep this up if you really want to see my snot up close.”

“I’m just messing.”

“Yeah, I know. Look, I think I’m human. Pretty sure my doctor or dentist would’ve said something by now.”

“And we both hit puberty around the same time, didn’t we?”

“That’s another thing. I couldn’t actually tell you how old I am. Not in years. We didn’t do birthdays back home that I recall. The agency had to take a guess based on how I looked.”

“Is that why you stopped having birthday parties?”

“Nah, that was your fault. You traumatized me that time you puked all over the piñata.”

“No, for real.”

“Maybe I was tired of getting the same Power Ranger sword from three different people.”

“Dude, it’s okay. It’s me.”

He relented and dropped the flippancy. “Yeah, that’s why we stopped. It got too weird for me, knowing it wasn’t real. Making me think too much about…home.”

“Home. Right.” I refocused. “Why are you here? How are you here? What was it like where you came from?”

“Where to even start with that,” he sighed. “My parents didn’t tell me why we had to leave home, just that it wasn’t safe there anymore. After that we were walking what felt like forever, days, weeks, I don’t know. Sometimes there were other groups walking with us. That and being hungry is what I mostly remember, hungry all the time. Starving.”

It was the first time I’d heard him say “my parents”. He couldn’t mean Tanya and Gavin Alwyn. It was jarring, after feeling bad for him that he’d never known his birth family, to instead feel bad that he had known and lost them.

“What happened to — ”

“I don’t want to talk about that part. Let’s just say it was only me and my dad by the end.” His demeanor was stoic throughout the story, but it was costing him some effort.

“I was too weak to really move much or do anything, all I remember is people talking, some of them in a language I didn’t know. Men in strange clothes. My dad told me I had to go with them, they would take me somewhere safe, but he couldn’t come. He was really weak too by that point. Then I remember lights, wind, high-pitched sound like a siren, and feeling like I was falling for a really long time.” He threw a rock as high and far as he could, watching its arc until it bounced to a stop far away on the asphalt. “After that all my memories are from here.”

What do you say to a revelation like that? Sorry for your loss, like everyone at a funeral? Something about being brave?

“Wow,” I mumbled. “That sucks. Sorry.”

“It’s fine.”

We threw more rocks.

“As for what it was like there, I shouldn’t — I feel bad saying this, but I get the feeling the whole place was…kinda boring? The first thing that really knocked me back when I got here was how many colors there were.”

Here?

“You don’t understand.” He pointed up. “You don’t realize how blue this sky is. I think ours was sort of blue too, but it was all just less, somehow. My dad tried explaining it to me, but I don’t think I could put it right in English. You could say everything was ‘falling apart,’ maybe, but that’s not really it.

“There’s a few strong memories of places, obviously memories of my family, and the rest is a blur. I don’t know how much of that is ‘cause I was little and how much is there not being a whole lot worth remembering.”

“All this interplanetary-dimensionary-domain…sionary voodoo does glitch up your memory, I can confirm that. I remember plenty from when I was four, or however old.

“Are you okay talking about all this?” I went on after a pause. “You’re not still mad at me, right?”

A subtly twisted, pained smile. “I’ve been holding all this in for nine years, man. Letting everyone think what they wanted because it was easier that way.”

“There’s no one here but us. What better time to LET IT ALL OUT!” I leaned over the edge and bellowed the last few words. Nik put Red down and joined me, the two of us screaming our every care and frustration over the parking lot, the rooftops, and the soccer fields beyond, the storefronts across the street screaming echoes back at us.

“Damn, I needed that,” he said once we were hoarse and breathless.

“I think I did too.”

“I’m not glad about what happened to you and Esther, or that we’re stuck here, but having someone to talk to about this? It’s like taking a breath after you’ve been at the bottom of the pool for too long.”

“You never told anyone? Not even Tanya and Gavin?”

“Once I had enough English to start talking about it, someone from the agency told me it would be too dangerous. They think I was abandoned at a church and no one knows where I’m from.”

“And how did you know you weren’t from Earth?”

“Remember about the colors? Some things you can tell just by looking. When I asked to go home, they told me we were too far away to ever go back, and if we could…well, there might not be anything there anymore.” I got a bona fide chill when he said this. “From there, as I got older, all I had to go on were stories, like you said. Parallel worlds. They got me thinking, putting my own theories together. Didn’t know if I’d ever get the chance to test them.”

“I assume this wasn’t the kind of chance you were hoping for.”

“I had no idea what to hope for. So if you have any ideas what to do next…”

“Oh, I’ve got plenty, I had a long walk to think. It’s just that almost all of them are terrible. The only one so far that makes sense is to go back to the place where this all started.”

“That valley from our camping trip. Oof.” He massaged his leg. “That’ll be a slog.”

“Soon as you’ve got something better, speak right up. Please.”

“I know, I know. Let’s do it.”

“We’ve only got — well no, I guess we still have a few more hours. It’s still so bright out. Heh, it’s crazy how fast I got used to shorter days.”

Nik tied on my jacket with the snakes curled up in two of its deep pockets and we descended to ground level. “You know,” I observed as we were passing by the surrounding shops, “it’s funny how all the buildings are abandoned, but some of these look more abandoned than others.”

“What do you mean? Those stores were already abandoned. They went out of business months ago.”

“No kidding? We used to go to a few of these places when we first moved out here. I didn’t hear anything about it. Don’t really pass by this way anymore.”

I got to pass by much more than I’d ever paid attention to in the course of our trek. We walked down the center line of every road, hopped every fence that got in our way, cut through someone’s backyard every time we felt like it. We took a shortcut down the long desolate corridor bisecting the town that was the high voltage right of way, the towers free of their ominous buzzing for once. When we passed through the substation, Nik ran his hands along wires and swung from transformers with impunity, and I followed as soon as I was ninety-five percent confident we wouldn’t burst into flames.

We climbed gradually higher as the sun sank lower, till we could take in nearly all of Morrow Glen steeped in orange light and long shadows. The moon had been out for a while, looking friendlier than I’d ever given it credit for. I kept looking up to reassure myself it was still there, half blotted out by a shadow that could only be Planet Earth.

“You really think we can make it there before night?” Nik asked.

“I’ve got a flashlight.”

“I don’t feel like stumbling around in the dark when we don’t even know what we’re looking for. Real talk, I was wiped out from practice even before all this walking and I’m mostly thinking about where we’re supposed to sleep.”

“Find a house with a nice soft carpet, maybe. I’m tired too — pretty sure this is the literal longest day of my life. I just don’t want to quit until we have to. Remember we’re probably not eating till we get out of this, never mind seeing our families.”

“Like I could forget,” he groaned.

“Sem was going to make something special for dinner too. Caught all those ick balls in the water tank for nothing…now if I get any hungrier I bet I could eat a handful of them raw.”

We continued discussing which Earth or Var animals we’d be willing to devour raw until he caught me eyeing the jacket pockets where the snakes were. “Let’s talk about something else.”

As the last light was fading, we stopped by the edge of the outermost housing tract to make up our minds about pressing on. It was there that we saw the first of the stars come out.

I was hit with the same relief as when I’d first spotted the moon. As alien and impossibly distant as I knew they were, they were my stars. Before long we were lying under a brighter, deeper, and more crowded sky than either of us had seen in years, the kind that, when you’re on your back and it takes up your whole field of vision, lets you realize that you’re not just looking up, you’re glued to the side of a planet and looking out at the universe.

It’s not my fault, Kir. I hope.

“Wow,” Nik whispered. “I bet nobody’s seen this many stars here since the quake.”

“You know people in LA saw the Milky Way for the first time that night and got so spooked they called 911?”

“Ha! I wish that surprised me.”

“Actually, I’m no constellologist, but I’m not seeing the Milky Way. These are our stars, right?”

“Over there. Big Dipper.”

I sat up, trying not to think about candy bars, and took another look at the town. A completely dark Morrow Glen was an impressive sight in its own way, as comforting as it would have been to see some—

“Light! Look, look, get up, there’s lights on!”

There were two, no, three of them in view, small but unmistakable points in the blackness. Candy bars and constellations forgotten, we jumped up and tried to figure out where they were coming from. “Okay, the closest one is downtown. Looks like it’s right on the other side of the…” I snapped my fingers, trying to recover the name for those sets of parallel steel rails that ran past the industrial area. “You know, the thing.”

Nik stared at me like he didn’t know whether to laugh at me or check my temperature. “The train tracks?”

“Yeah, that.”

“You all right?”

“My brain needs food, give me a break.”

“Is my brain starving too, or is the other one coming from Bohrdom?”

“I think you’re right. Yeah, it is! Huh. We should still check out the train tracks one first.”

After some tedious backtracking, we hit the railroad and followed it until we caught sight of the nearest light, emanating from the top of one of the ramshackle, supposedly abandoned farm supply buildings. As usual, the door was unlocked.

The inside of the place was as empty as every other, but parts of it looked clean and well-maintained, in sharp contrast to the exterior. We found the stairs to the roof and emerged into the faint electric glow coming from inside a single massive air handler, chugging away like it was any old non-eldritch April evening. Nik approached it, and seeing that I hung back, said, “It’s safe, come on.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know. Have I ever been wrong about this kind of thing? I can feel whenever something’s dangerous.”

My feet and brain ground to a halt as years’ worth of unexplained incidents slotted themselves abruptly into place, from our camping trip all the way back to his first run-ins with school bullies. “Holy so that’s why — buh — ”

He let me splutter for a little longer, unable to keep a good-natured smirk off his face. “Yeah. Guess I should have mentioned that earlier. It does come in pretty handy.”

“Handy? It’s like a superpower! I was thinking you were like Superman, getting sent to Earth from wherever, but this is like that Spidey-sense thing. You’re Spider-man! Ooh, have you ever tried shooting a web?”

“No I can’t shoot webs.” He rolled his eyes.

“But have you ever triiied? Climb up that wall.”

“Stop being dumb.”

“No. Pbththbpt. Seriously though, can everyone do that where you’re from? Wait, no, this is because you’re displaced, isn’t it? You’re the tube of sunscreen I was telling you about, the one that gets taken up to the top of the mountain and then…explodes? I don’t think I’m saying that right.”

“I was thinking about that. Wouldn’t it be the opposite of what happened to you? Wouldn’t me coming from my world to here be like going from the top of the mountain to the bottom?”

“So then the tube would…”

“Get crushed,” he finished morosely.

“Hold on now. But when you open it, it would suck everything back in, wouldn’t it? That’s like the same force. Same difference, literally. Aah, this metaphor made more sense when Sem was doing it. Basically the moral of the story is that you suck.”

“And you blow. Glad we cleared that up.”

Examining the boxy unit turned up a single panel we could easily open. Rows of buttons, some knobs, and an LCD screen were among the controls we recognized inside. Below them were more esoteric inputs such as a pair of circular pads and what looked like a cross between a joystick and a fancy wine opener. I commenced the universal protocol of pushing every button at random and the screen blinked to life. A crawl of text ran down it too fast for me to read, then a virtual keyboard popped up with a prompt:

PASSWORD:

“Great. Anywhere else we can try?” The remaining panels couldn’t be pulled open, so we resorted to prying. Nik got a purchase underneath one of them with the flathead screwdriver on the multitool, and I was able to slip one of the scissor blades in and lever it outward. Almost immediately there was a sharp hiss and air began rushing into the gap we’d created. The light inside the unit flickered and the LCD froze, jagged lines distorting the image. The hissing stopped after a minute, and we found we couldn’t pry the panel any further without risking snapping the scissors.

Nik tapped the screen, which stayed frozen. “Oops.”

I gave the unit a kick, equal parts annoyed at what we had failed to learn and freaked out by the one thing I could deduce. “They were already here. Of course they were.”

“Who’s they?

“How should I know! I forgot to tell you about all the sketchy stuff that went down before Esther ran off. Like what they did to the mall. I got lost in this employee closet, and Esther — wait, Esther was talking to someone, meeting with someone the day before! She told me not to worry about it…aarrgh, why can’t I remember?” I kicked the machine some more until the screen went black, then sat with my back against it. Nik slid down next to me.

“So Nik,” I said after a long pause to cool down, “You said your family didn’t…you know, make it. None of them came here with you.” He nodded.

“Who brought you here?”

“No idea. It’s not like I could understand anything they were saying. I only remember one guy’s name, the one who spent the most time with me. The others called him Anthony.”

“Okay, probably an American name. You sure it wasn’t just something that sounded like it?”

“How much are you absolutely sure of from when you were that little?”

“Fair. How’s this for a theory: First I found the little goober that led me to your neighborhood — that was out of place. Then I found you — now we know you’re out of place here. Then we find this thing, however it’s getting power. Oh, and the snakes for, um…some friggin’ reason. Where did you get those two?”

He took them out for some fresh air, and to make sure they hadn’t relieved themselves in my jacket pockets. “Zoo Station. It’s just a normal pet shop as far as I can tell.”

“Well fine, ignoring them for now, what if everyone or every functioning thing that shows up here has a connection to another domain?”

“Like we’re on some kind of border.”

“And it’s safe to say someone who lives here made this, someone who programmed it in English, probably the same people who fixed up the downstairs. Also, tangent, is it just me or do like seventy percent of the ghost stories kids tell come from this part of town?”

He shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. I don’t get many trouble vibes around here.”

“Whatever. There are people in Morrow Glen up to some seriously not-normal stuff is what I’m saying.”

“Good theory, good theory.” He yawned. “Where are you going with it?”

“See, I was hoping I’d have that figured out by the time I was done making all those points…”

The night was getting no younger and we weren’t likely to learn any more from the machine. So speaking of learning, it was time to make for the distant flickering light that appeared to be coming from, of all places, our school.

Next:
11. Full Bohr

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9.2. We Put the Hole in Holistic

9.2. We Put the Hole in Holistic

“Do you remember me?”

I nodded. Armbands touched something on his headset.

“Good. I want you to understand everything perfectly in your last moments.”

I palmed the pepper spray, more to stave off complete helplessness than because I expected to do anything useful with it. Sem and I both kept stealing glances at the stairs below us, gauging the distance we would have to run if we made a break for it. Seeing as he promptly followed our eyes with his nozzle, we could maybe have been subtler.

The nozzle shot a jet of fine particles with the same fire-extinguisher hiss we had just heard, and the lower stairs began to crumble. He swept it steadily up and towards us, forcing us to step back as we ran out of room to stand. It was at least a three-story drop to the pile of rubble below us, assuming he intended to leave us intact enough to feel it.

Would it be better to jump now? If the fall didn’t kill us, we’d be crippled and still at his mercy. Either way, I didn’t think I could do it.

I lost what composure I had left and fired the pepper spray from my hip.

This time I could see clearly that the spray itself didn’t reach him. Nevertheless, he hollered and staggered, one of his knees buckling. His weapon jerked upward, now aimed at the wall above the stairs. He dropped to the roof, letting go of the weapon to clutch at his leg with his good arm.

As we squeezed ourselves onto the last few intact steps, the section of wall that had been hit followed after the collapsing stairs, leaving a hole wide enough and (theoretically) close enough for us to jump to. Something lingered in the air and wafted toward us, something that burned the eyes and throat and tingled on the skin.

It wouldn’t take Armbands long to realize that I hadn’t injured him. I prodded Sem to jump, but she hesitated, groaning in spurts of terror and fatigue. Whatever exercise she got from caretaking hadn’t prepared her for a day like today. And it was a dicey jump even for someone in better shape: a shallow angle, an irregular hole with a section of floor blocking part of it, and an unknown drop on the other side.

“He’s getting back up, come on!”

She crouched, leaped, banged herself up badly on the hole’s rough edges and tumbled out of sight, but she made it through.

Armbands steadied himself on one knee, taking aim again.

I backed up the little that I could and threw myself at the opening. My feet caught on the edge and I fell the full height of the dark passage inside like a rag doll, landing painfully on my side next to Sem.

I half limped, half crawled away from the outer wall as more of it began collapsing along with pieces of ceiling and floor. But Sem wasn’t following. She struggled to get up, half stunned from the fall. Just as I was helping her to her feet, the bottom of the wall fell out, leaving us exposed to the ongoing assault from Armbands’s spray gun of death. I pulled her out of the way, but her scream told me I was an instant too slow.

We stumbled through a few rooms and side passages at random until we were out of the danger zone. As soon as we stopped, I saw that the right arm and shoulder of her dress were gone, with a startling amount of blood where they used to be. I won’t go into detail, but if you choose to imagine an arm and shoulder with half the skin missing, you won’t be far off.

The first archway we found with a curtain, we tore it down and did our best to wrap the wound with it, with a lot of gritting teeth and muffled groans. She composed herself when it was done, covered in sweat and considerably paler, but with the pain keeping her alert.

Susan, that hurts.”

“Who?”

“What?”

“I thought you said Susan.”

She looked annoyed. “I apologize, but I think we have bigger concerns than propriety of language.”

“Never mind then. What do we do?”

“He called the others to him. If we get back to the panel I can see where they are now.”

She steered us by a different path back to the security panel by the kitchen, where she leaned against the wall and tried to catch her breath while she examined it. “The other two are moving away from Analytics. He spoke to them, did you see?”

“So they have some sort of radios. I mean, walkie-talkies. I mean…they’re communicating at a distance.”

“Like your light device?”

It took me longer to parse this than it should have. The flashlight radio was made for listening to remote transmissions. “You think…?”

“It’s possible. We can’t know until we retrieve it.”

“Kir’s closer. He can get it.”

“He hasn’t moved from the room he’s in.”

“I bet he’s just being careful. He’s really good at sneaking; he spent all that time around dangerous people at Camp Outlook. He can take care of himself.”

“If you say so…” She wasn’t convinced.

As I tried to make some sense of what she was reading in the symbols on the grid, I reached tentatively for any latent connections. It was becoming a reflex after all the times I’d done it in the archives. There was something there, different from the knowledge base but similar in kind. “Let me try something.”

The security system was built on connections between all parts of the Institute. It was a rush of information as before, but this time it was tied to physical locations, some of which were already familiar to me. With a little adjustment, I was able to jump from one item to the next without getting overwhelmed:

The rooms and buildings I had already seen and explored —

The other sections of campus that Sem’s diligence had preserved —

Armbands, getting lost in the Finality wing as he tried to track us down, but still too close —

A woman, making her way through the Apprehension gallery toward Armbands, and by extension us —

A man moving in the opposite direction, for what purpose I couldn’t tell —

Around him, a growing web of tenuous connections to the lost sections, decaying and barely intelligible —

Tied to them all, the consuming rent, from which I had to pull myself away —

Esther’s backpack sitting undisturbed in the Analytics chambers —

Kir, motionless in one of the rooms near Analytics. My heart sped up. “Oh man, they got Kir, he’s not moving. Would he still show up if he…”

“I don’t think so?”

“’Cause he’s super not moving.”

“I know, Reid. We need to stay calm.” This was purely aspirational; she was no calmer than I was.

Non-calmness aside, having this kind of awareness was boosting my confidence. I kept exploring. “There are a couple exits we could get to. And I think I have a straight shot to where I left the backpack. As long as I can keep track of where everyone is, we can avoid them. Could we lose them in the loop? Or the caves?”

“After we find Kir?”

“Right. Yeah, of course. After that. I just got distracted.” I wasn’t ignoring him, I told myself to try and fight back a wave of shame. “Is there a map of this place anywhere? Maybe that could work for me the same way as the panel, but portable.”

“I don’t see why not. There must be one around, let me think. I haven’t needed one for ages…”

While she was thinking, I looked over at the stove. “If we had to, do you think we could use Zhuas to defend ourselves?”

“Fire? There are libraries here, Reid!”

If she had turned a fraction of the indignation in that statement on Armbands, he would have shrunk two sizes and developed a crippling fear of academia on the spot. But I convinced her to bring Zhuas along just in case, in a specialized ceramic-looking container that fit into her satchel. Despite the ring of air holes in the vessel, she didn’t seem concerned for the bag’s other contents.

Her breathing grew heavier and her pace slower as we made our way toward Analytics. Rather than the obvious path, we took a narrow, winding corridor on the floor above it. Once we were close, I descended a tight spiral staircase while she remained behind to look for a map she thought she remembered seeing nearby.

The coast seemed clear when I reached the bottom. I ran through the familiar grid of chambers to the analyzer at the back, retrieved the backpack, and got out the flashlight radio. There was only the usual static when I switched it on, but when I concentrated on the idea of signals it cut out abruptly and I heard:

“ — that he’s impulsive. Stop underestimating the risk.” A woman’s voice, calm and assertive.

“I do listen.” A young man projecting confidence. “You said he had barely any training.”

“Exactly. Why do you think Flack asked me not to let you out of my sight when you were just starting out?”

“He’s not getting out of our sight now. I’ve got the layout. They’re on level two. Backtrack to where we split up and I’ll give you directions from there.”

“Keep me informed of your progress too. We may not need it, but — ”

“I know, Neery, I know.” I could almost hear his eyes rolling. “Can you believe no one ever told us about this place? It’s incredible, even without the anomaly.”

“Yes I can. They all think it’s haunted or something. So much the better for us, right?”

“They know where we are now!” I blurted when I ran into Sem just outside the chambers. She was leaning shakily against a pillar and there was a sparse trail of blood down the corridor where she had just been.

“Kir’s gone,” she said, wide-eyed. “The room he was supposed to be in is empty.”

“Well that’s — is that good news? Does that mean he’s alive?”

“That depends, you’ll have to check again. Here.” She handed me a faded map. “This is…the best I could find upstairs.”

My hunch was right. Having gotten a feel for the security connections throughout the campus, I could access them using the map as well. Kir was the first thing I found. “He’s moving! He’s moving, he’s alive!”

But the excitement was brief. The second thing I found was Armbands, who was now on the right track and moving toward us at an alarming rate.

Before I could locate anyone else, I was disrupted, much as I’d been before in the Cognition tower. This time I recognized the source of the break as the man in the lost part of campus. “Ah! I lost it, he changed something again.”

A single tremor shook the hallway, accompanied by a rumble suggesting that it had done the same to the entire building. Some dust sifted down from the ceiling.

“Don’t distract me!” snapped the young man on the radio with a hint of panic.

The woman, Neery: “You all right? You said you could handle this.”

“I can, it’s just — working with a sink this size takes concentration.”

Sem’s already strained face contorted with fury. The pleasant scholar-caretaker disappeared. “Susan!” she swore again.

“Donna,” I concurred, trying to get into the spirit. “What just happened?”

“The brute with…the dissolving weapon was one thing,” she breathed, “but this man is tapping into the rent…for power, compromising the whole framework. He can’t be allowed…Where is he?” Though resolute, her voice was getting weak.

“He’s in one of those areas that are barely there anymore. I don’t know how to get to him.”

“Show me approximately?” I traced a rough area on the map.

“If you help me…I’ll find a way.” She rifled through the backpack. “What else is in here that…we could use? We have all your absorbers — ”

Not mine — ”

“ — they must be good for something. You don’t need your…locator while you have the map. May I?” I nodded and she stuffed the locator as far into her satchel as it would go.

Going toward the enemy struck me as the worst possible plan. “There’s gotta be some way I can mess him up like he was doing to me. You said he was tapping into the rent. If I did the same thing, could I— ”

Don’t you dare!” She clutched my arm so hard I thought her nails might break skin. “Reckless, thoughtless child! Do you…want to destroy it even faster?”

“Ow! Okay, okay, sorry! I thought you were already using it for your security traps and things.”

“Before everyone else…left me, some of the practical ones set up…the security measures. They do exploit the rent’s influence, but in a controlled manner. Not these people.”

“Please let me go, that hurts.”

She released me, swayed, and almost fell. When I put an arm around her to keep her upright, I felt that the wrapping on her wound was soaked through. Outrage would only keep her going for so much longer.

“We need to go, we need to get Kir and get you out of here.”

“I won’t leave.” She pulled away from me and limped on ahead with her good hand on the wall for support.

“What are you going to do? You won’t last ten seconds against them like that.”

“Since you just…met me I forgive you for not understanding this, but I would…rather die than let this place collapse any further.”

“I respect that, but I would rather live!” My voice was breaking. “I don’t believe that stuff you were saying about freedom! I want to live!”

“Then do what you must. Your easiest course would be to surrender…I’m sure they want you alive.”

She said all this without stopping or looking at me. I had no retort for her; she was right. It made total sense according to my priorities. Yet admitting that to myself felt like a backhand to the face.

I had fantasized about being a hero in the past. Who hasn’t? We’ve all heard the news stories of the ordinary guy who proved what he was made of when things went wrong, saved a bunch of people, maybe even stomped a bad guy. I’d thought Sure, that could be me, if I got the right opportunity. My opportunity had arrived, and I’d shown what I was made of. Two of the handful of friends I had in this slice of reality were in danger, and my first thought had been for my own skin. My skin and my things, which weren’t even mine.

I understood with a new kind of clarity why I would never earn the same kind of trust Esther enjoyed.

The quiet seconds that followed, filled only by Sem’s footsteps shuffling away from me, were some of the longest of my life up to that point. I let her shuffle a good ten paces before I cinched up the backpack straps and marched around in front of her.

“I’m not leaving you,” I said, “either of you.”

I hadn’t been paying close attention to the radio, but now I heard the young man say, “You want to contain him, one of these lost rooms should do it — here, ‘Contingency archive room’. Looks like the easiest to move.”

“Where are they now?”

“Two halls away from you, up one level, and moving slowly.”

“Any exits?”

“None close.”

“Then you should have time to pick me up and shift over to them.”

“Definitely. They won’t get far.”

“Do you know what they’re talking about?” I asked Sem.

She nodded, her eyes closed as she slumped against the wall. “They’re about to trap us. In a disconnected room. You might…be able to avoid it on your own, but I doubt I can.”

“What did the, the whosimawhatsit archive room use to connect to? Anything intact, anything I can access?” She didn’t respond.

Sem?

“Patience…It used to connect to one of the…Find the Attribution archives…”

“Got it. I don’t know how to stop them from trapping us, but could I reconnect it? Could I make a way out?”

“Places…can remember what they were made for…for a long time.”

I used the map to locate the archive room she was talking about. It was on the verge of deteriorating, but remained integrated enough with the rest of the Institute that we could theoretically escape through it. I hoped.

Also, we were about to have angry, macho company.

“We can’t keep going this way, the big guy’s almost on top of us!” Not that it mattered which way we went as long as he kept getting directions from the guy tracking us. We were by a junction between corridors and the entrance to a room, leaving us four different, seemingly useless options. “Is there anywhere we could block him or slow him down?”

“Not unless…we make a barricade…”

“Would it have killed you people to invest in some doors?

Armbands rendered our discussion moot by appearing at the other end of the corridor. As he strode toward us, my vision distorted and everything went totally black. I could see light on the other side of a window, but inside nothing was visible.

Sem pulled me by the arm, and together we fumbled our way into the nearby room. “Shhh,” she said once we were away from the entrance.

“Are you doing this?” I whispered. She put her hand in mine and I felt a plastic cylinder, one of the “absorbers” she’d taken from the backpack. “Absorbed…light. Told you they…were versatile.”

There was another archway across the room from us, and like the window, there was light on the other side. A silhouette came into view, a man who looked in bad shape, possibly wounded like Sem, supporting himself against the arch.

“Kir!”

I took four steps toward him before everything changed.

The arch vanished, the sound of my footsteps carried differently, and everything smelled like dust and decay. I was also hit with a feeling I hated to say I was getting used to, from getting stuck in a maintenance closet to exploring the local cursed abyss. A nearly incoherent sense of not quite being anywhere.

Sem stopped absorbing the light, revealing that we were in a different, much longer room, dark, dingy, and falling apart. It was dominated by rows of shelves, some closely packed, some spread out, some at odd angles to each other, many others fallen over and smashed. It looked like they’d been designed to move on a system of rails, connected to one another by cables. Dust covered everything and hung in the air, lit up in inconsistent rays by a row of windows near the ceiling. Every time I looked at a new window I saw something different outside.

“Reid!” Sem cried as loudly as she could, which wasn’t very. I turned around to see Armbands’s bulk filling the arch we had just come through.

I backed away, holding out the pepper spray at arm’s length. His only reaction was to narrow his eyes and extend his own sprayer in similar fashion as he stalked toward me. A pathetically one-sided standoff.

“Please, try it again. See who ends up hurting worse this time.”

“Look dude, you can have the Walkman. You want depression that bad, be my guest.”

“If you’re going to beg, brat, you should be on your knees.”

No sense of humor on this guy. I should have known.

“Did you think the skirts of an old woman would protect you as well as the rag of a parasite?”

“Watch your words,” said a voice from the other end of the room, the same man’s voice I’d been hearing on the radio. I made the mistake of looking toward the voice, and Armbands lunged, knocked the canister out of my hand, and slammed me up against a shelf with the sprayer nozzle jammed into my stomach.

“I don’t fear any of you,” he said in reply to the voice. “I fear nothing even in the real world. You two are nothing. He is nothing! Weaklings, tricksters.” He spat in my face.

“No man, woman, or child walks this land who has disrespected me,” he went on, addressing me. I got the impression he had rehearsed at least part of what he was saying. “And you threaten me with toys? Until today, you’ve never known what pain is. In the wastelands, where cowards like you would be — ”

“And that’s enough of that,” said the woman who materialized from the shadows next to him. Something shiny and pointed slid out of her sleeve and she jabbed him in the back with it. He convulsed, then flopped to the floor as if she’d yanked his batteries.

I stayed pressed against the shelf, thrown for a complete loop, wondering if I had just watched a man die.

Neery gave Armbands a disgusted look. “Bugsen,” she called across the room. “I told you we didn’t need this meat slab.”

“I thought an extra hand couldn’t hurt.”

“And that’s why you’re still the fresh-burned. Also, what were you thinking, letting him have the stripper?” She pulled the tank off his back and hefted it. “Aaah, he must have blown half the tank. Locals!

She was on the short side, athletic, with quick movements. Her clothing wasn’t from Var: the long-sleeved shirt and pants looked machine-made, reminding me of something from an outdoor supply company. Her small backpack and the holsters on her belt completed the look. She had thick glasses and auburn hair tied back enough to keep it out of her face. Some of it moved aside when she shook her head, and I saw that one of her ears was missing.

I couldn’t get as close a look at Bugsen, a lanky guy sitting hunched at what must have been the most intact desk in the place. He looked to be somewhere in his twenties, with messy silvery hair and what might have been some thin facial hair. His equipment was scattered around him on the desk, surrounded by papers, none of it recognizable.

I didn’t take the time to look any closer. As Neery stooped to remove Armbands’s headset, I bolted toward Sem, who was leaning on one of the fallen sets of shelves. Just as I reached her and began dragging her toward the exit, I heard two bangs in succession and Neery saying, “No, that’s perfect, stay right there.” A pair of projectiles embedded in the side of the shelf behind us, immediately pulling us to themselves like magnets. When I tried to pry loose the thing digging into my back, my hand simply stuck to it.

Neery was aiming a blocky device at us with a grip like a pistol. “Stay focused, Bugsen,” she called when the room trembled a bit.

“I’ve got it. The less shooting the better, though.”

“Let’s keep it simple, you two,” she said to us. “This place is under our control now. We— ”

“This Institute…and its knowledge…belong to all who — ”

“Save it, lady. You don’t have the breath or the blood for speech-making just now. You can even stay here if you don’t make trouble. You’re useful. And as your luck would have it, Reid, you’re even more useful.”

“How do you know my name? Who do you work for?”

They scoffed almost in unison. “We work for ourselves,” she replied. “Only way to live.”

Sem nudged me and whispered “Eyes closed.”

“Now, I know nobody wants today getting any messier than it already has —”

I closed my eyes just as Sem dropped the light-absorber, which lit up like a silent flash grenade as soon as she released it. Neery gave a cry and recoiled away from us, and at the same time Sem’s elbow jabbed me as she strained to reach behind her back. A second later she was reaching behind mine and the force pinning me to the embedded object dissipated.

We were free, but Neery was recovering quickly from the flash. I pulled Sem around to the other side of the collapsed shelves, giving us some cover before we could get shot with anything else. She was holding two more absorbers, both of which she handed to me. As soon as she relinquished them, they stuck our hands together and jerked them toward my torso, making me punch myself in the stomach. She’d used them to take the attractive force from Neery’s projectiles.

“Thanks…Agghh.”

“Contain it…”

Just like she had been doing with the light. It took me a few tries to get them under control. I took a couple more from the bag, the barest sketch of a plan forming in my head.

If I could get close enough to Neery and Bugsen without getting shot, I might be able to pin them with the two attractors. Doing Sem’s light-absorbing trick again might buy me the chance. What else could I absorb?

I took out Zhuas’s container from the satchel. Despite Sem shaking her head feebly at me, I opened it and carefully reached in with one of the unused absorbers. Again, it took several tries to get the knack, but I got it to take in some of the flames. I stopped when the fire creature’s color began to dim and the plastic got uncomfortably hot.

Maybe if I could use the fire to take out Bugsen’s setup at the desk, it would prevent or at least delay him from regaining control. Sem might hate me for it, but there was no better place to start a fire than a disconnected room. With the two of them unable to follow us, I would reconnect this room to the other archive, run for the exit with Sem, and break the connection as soon as we were out. Maybe, best case scenario, they would be the ones trapped.

It was too many maybes and mights, but it was something.

Neery was being more cautious now. “You’ve made this an interesting trip for us, Reid,” she said, still on the other side, “and I can’t blame you for it. Fun’s over though.”

“We’re isolated now,” Bugsen added. “Nobody’s going anywhere until you make up your mind.”

Either they were bluffing or they really weren’t aware of the potential to reconnect the room. I was keeping the connection fixed in my mind, but Bugsen would surely notice as soon as I tried to activate it.

“Make up my mind?”

“You agree to come with us, under restraint for everyone’s safety,” said Neery. “If you cooperate, there’s probably still time to save your friend. If you stay cooperative, we might even be able to track down that sister you’re looking for.”

Like hell you’re getting me and Esther both.

I left Sem where she lay and moved toward Bugsen’s end of the room, staying out of sight behind fallen shelves.

“If you choose to keep making trouble, we can stay here as long as we need to. Metega here is going to wake up eventually, and then he can do as he pleases with you. We’ll make sure he leaves you alive.”

So Armbands had a real name. I had gotten used to the nickname by now, though.

“You help me find my sister, you let Sem live and stop wrecking her home, and I come quietly. That’s the deal?”

“That’s the deal.” Neery moved closer to my voice.

“I can’t take any more of this,” I said honestly. “I’ll do it.” Less honest.

“Slide your bag over, hold up your hands, and come to me slowly.”

I released the attractors just enough to stick them and the other two absorbers to the back of my hands, then stepped into the open. I slid the backpack across the floor and raised my hands palms out, hoping she would take my trembling for nervousness about being captured.

“NO!” The shout came from the far end of the room, and it came in Kir’s voice.

He had made it into the room before it was isolated, undetected by anyone. Maybe Bugsen had been too focused on me to notice him.

He sprang at Bugsen from behind a junk pile, brandishing a sturdy length of wood from some piece of ruined furniture. Neery spun toward them but only had time to yell, “Don’t — ” before he swung it into the man’s head with an awful crack.

As Bugsen keeled over with Kir on top of him, that incoherent aspect of the room shifted. Neery gripped the closest shelf and braced herself. I realized she was now frightened not only for her partner, but for herself. Considering how unfazed she’d been by everything else so far, it occurred to me that I should be following her example.

We moved. Or rather, we arrived.

The windows all went dark. Any books remaining on the shelves toppled off. I lost my balance and crashed to the floor like I’d been spinning around a baseball bat. The walls trembled and things fell from the ceiling. For a moment I felt like I was in freefall, and my entire field of vision curved until I could see both behind and in front of me.

Space snapped back to normal with a lurch, leaving everyone except Neery prone. Thinking this chaos might be our chance to escape, I probed the room’s connections and came up empty. They’d all been broken the second Bugsen was knocked out. All but one.

The wall where we had entered buckled and burst outward, taking nearly half the room with it. What was left opened onto the edge of the rent.

Rows of shelves fell, tearing their tracks out of the floor and cables out of the ceiling. Amid the gusts of air and dust kicked up by the collapse, I saw the unconscious Metega go tumbling into the mist and disappear. I forgot about him an instant later when the floor fell out from under Sem, dropping her out of sight.

I got up and reeled closer to the edge, shouting for her. We were above the broken staircase that hung over the pit, now with even more of its steps broken off by the falling debris. She was lying motionless on the bottom landing.

Neery ran to check on her fallen partner, and I followed, scooping up the backpack when I reached it. She was the only obstacle left. I’d lost three of the absorbers when I fell — the fire one was already starting a small blaze in one of the junk piles — but I still had one attractor.

She was bending over Bugsen’s desk when she heard my approach and looked up. Thinking I was in range, I threw the attractor as hard as I could. Before it could cross half the distance to her, it swerved onto the side of a shelf.

A moving shelf.

A shelf that, along with several others, was being dragged toward the edge by the cables linking it to a group that had just toppled over. It passed by me just close enough for the attractor to catch me and drag me along with it, faster and faster across the room until the room ran out. I was flung outward violently enough that the force pinning me relinquished its hold and left me for gravity to sort out.

The sky and the pit spun around me and I caught sight of the stairs, I was falling toward them, I was saved. But why wasn’t I falling faster, I was falling wrong, things were wrong in this place, would I overshoot —

I hit the steps, bouncing and rolling and bruising as I tried to slow myself, to get a grip, but things were still wrong, no traction. Sem at the bottom, still conscious, trying to raise herself, coming toward me too fast, throwing up an arm, terrified —

Collision. We slid too far, one last desperate clutching at the railing, the uncooperative stone, then down, down together, one last look up at the stairs before they receded into the mist, the mist consuming everything.

Next:
10. Hollow Glen

Previous:
9.1. We Put the Hole in Holistic

9.1. We Put the Hole in Holistic

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?”

“That depends.”

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?”

“Nothing.”

“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?”

“Significantly.”

“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.”

“Someone?

“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.”

Next:
9.2. We Put the Hole in Holistic

Previous:
8. Realms of Possibility

8. Realms of Possibility

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?”

“…No.”

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 what?”

“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.

In case you have trouble picturing a triangular staircase.

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 —”

“Don’t panic.”

“Do you know what this is?”

“No!”

“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.

“Hello?”

“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.

“Well?”

“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 Emberley.”

“Kir Tenbar.”

“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…”

“You.”

“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.

“Existence.”

“Growth.”

“Sentience.” The two arcs she added here almost made it look like a weird eye. “Notice how each stage encompasses the others now.”

“Reflection. Rationality.”

“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?”

“Big ones.”

“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.”

Next:
9.1. We Put the Hole in Holistic

Previous:
7. Gifts and Curses

7. Gifts and Curses

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.”

“Planet?”

“Never mind.”

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.

Avrid,

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,

Forside

“Hang on, I think I almost got it that time. Once more.”

“Last time.”

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.

Esther.

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.

Forside.

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.”

“Offering?”

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.

“Well?”

I stabbed the Mighty Sparkle Pen down on So Ameda. “Let’s see what this curse is all about.”

Next:
8. Realms of Possibility

Previous:
6. Lords of the Edge

6. Lords of the Edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…platform is…we…have more…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He held up his hands. “Yes. Be calm.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I just got here.”

“Var, I mean.”

“Four days.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Way more moderate.”

“I know how you feel.”

“Where are you from, then?”

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

“Like me?”

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

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

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

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

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

“You at least know where we are?”

“More or less.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s stopping them?”

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

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

“A neat way of putting it.”

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

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

“But what did you mean by self— ”

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

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

“What is this?”

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

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

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

“Is…is that a person in there?”

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

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

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

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

“Uh, what are we—”

“Wait for it. And step back.”

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

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

“Please, sit.”

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

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

“You keep saying domain. What is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Taken by whom? How?”

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

“That’s because I don’t know.”

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

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

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

“Describe it.”

“It all sounds stupid.”

“Stupider than what you’ve seen here?”

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

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

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

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

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

“So I’m out of luck.”

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

“Duh, they’re my family.”

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

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

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

“Yes please.”

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

“No.”

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

“Is it just your language that has those?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’d just get sleepy.”

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

“Silence. Do we have to?”

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

“Harsh.”

“Shhh.”

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

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

“Are we like — ”

“Stop talking, Avrid.”

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

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

What if I invented nachos in this world?

“Try to clear your mind of distractions.”

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

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

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

I had. It was unsettling.

“Try and recapture that perspective again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honestly Reid, try to think before you — ”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I got it! I think…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

“Now do the same thing as before.”

“Snake,” I said to him after a pause.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is a lock, right?”

“Right.”

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

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

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

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

“What about clothes?”

“If you brought them with you.”

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

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

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

“Where’s it from?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Anything if it gets me more answers.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What the hell was that?”

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

“Are you not supposed to say that here?”

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

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

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

“I can’t come with you?”

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

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

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

I chuckled.

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Extra…how simple are we talking?”

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

“Still gonna pass.”

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

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

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

“…”

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

“…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure. Fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

What? Did he say where he was going?”

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

“Did he say when he’d be back?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s up to you.

“All right,” I said. “Let’s do it.”

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

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

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

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

“How far should I go?”

“As far as you can.”

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

“As you wish.”

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

I stepped off the path and walked onward.

Next:
7. Gifts and Curses

Previous:
5. Pictionary: First Contact Edition


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