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 this way.” She did in fact take several wrong turns before we got there. This section of the building was dusty and in considerably worse shape, with sizable cracks in some of the walls and floors. At a certain point in the last leg 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. Kir and I stood dumbstruck on a stone porch that looked 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 had noticed when we were lost in the 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 began descending the stairs, Kir followed, and I held out as long as I could before my don’t-look-like-a-sissy instinct fully kicked in. Before long I felt the steps 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 way a fever sometimes messed with my 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 series of stone 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 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 still existed. “I should have mentioned that sooner. What I was going to say was 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.

5. Pictionary: First Contact Edition

Being the son of a salesman wasn’t high on my list of things to brag about, but I had to admit I was grateful for it when it came to things like first impressions. Specifically, in this case, being the potential first ambassador for Earth. (By now I was willing to admit that possibility to myself.)

I was on my way with two men through the town center of Brenest, a cluster of buildings around a stand of trees at the edge of a long elliptical clearing. Our destination was a complex of platforms and walkways up in the trees, a bigger and better version of the many such structures we’d passed on our way in.

Some of the villagers gave me curious looks, but no one seemed distrustful or even surprised. If they were used to outsiders here, I liked my chances. It was easy to be upbeat now that I was surrounded by cautiously hospitable people, partly rested, and full. Last night I’d shoveled down everything my hosts put in front of me too quickly to even guess what any of it was, and conked out in a hammock shortly after. Some mild indigestion aside, none of their food had poisoned me so far.

Now if only I wasn’t still walking around with my foot in a bag. No one had offered me replacement shoes yet, and I didn’t trust anything on the ground not to stab and/or poison me. Case in point: I was distracted looking up at the treehouses and tripped on a patch of the pale pink sea anemone-looking fungi that were so common here, provoking a shocked reaction from my escorts and a few passersby. My foot seemed okay when I checked it, but I would have to remember that those things were a no-no. A fat lot of sense it made to let them grow everywhere if they were dangerous.

“What is this stuff?” I pointed at the fungus and looked to one of the men, the one with the mustache who smiled more.

Odeana,” he said. He had made the mistake of naming a tree when I pointed to it, and I’d been pestering him for more words the entire rest of the walk. Of course it was mainly an excuse to talk to someone; I forgot most of them by the time we arrived at the largest of the trees.

They led me onto a covered platform with a frame and guard rails around it, and cables running up to the large central platform above. One especially thick cable in a loose sheath ran through a box on the ceiling and down through the floor. When Mustache touched something on the box, the cable stiffened, the elevator lurched, and we began rising. It wasn’t as smooth a ride as I was used to, with inconsistent speed and some jolts, but I was impressed. I had thought wheels, pulleys, and blacksmithing were the leading edge of technology around here.

The noises coming from the cable box weren’t mechanical. Before we reached the top, I snuck a peak through a slit in its side and saw what looked like ropy, undulating flesh passing through it.

I might have to expand my definition of technology. Or I could just try not to think about it.

If the elevator hadn’t been a tipoff, it was clear when I stepped off it that we had gone up a social stratum. The central platform was built between several trees and contained a single sprawling building, with stairs and suspension bridges leading to nearby platforms or going off deeper into the forest. It was already starting to rain, so I was quickly ushered inside to wait in a low-ceilinged room with seats, a table, bookshelves, and some intricate geometric artwork on the walls — almost like fractals, though I couldn’t think of the word. One side of the room looked like it would be open to the outside if not for the awning that covered it.

They arrived piecemeal and stayed for as long as they could: a thoughtful silver-haired woman with glasses, a businesslike couple more interested in talking than listening, a squat man with a braid who got excited easily and took lots of notes, and a man who looked a little like my grandfather and became my favorite almost immediately. His name contained some of their consonants that I couldn’t get the hang of, so I just called him Phil. These, presumably, were some of the more learned villagers come to find out where I came from and what I was doing here.

I couldn’t wait for them to tell me.

I greeted the first arrivals with both a bow and my firmest handshake, trying to keep all my bases covered. By the time the last few showed up, I realized they would believe anything was a standard formal greeting in my culture, and threw in an optional high five.

I was right, they were used to outsiders. It was even possible that we were in some sort of visitor center. My interviewers first tried speaking to me in what sounded like different languages, then showed me some books and other documents. Braid pulled out sheets of a thin membranous material and wrote something on it with a stylus. Where he scratched the paper, it discolored, darkened, and raised ever so slightly to show the words he’d written. I tried writing back, “Get me out of here, your forest is the worst,” but there was a knack to it that I was missing. I wrote it in Esther’s journal instead.

So far no one was understanding anything except basic hand gestures. Though my patience was running low, I managed to stay on everyone’s good side. All I had to do for Braid was keep feeding him new things to analyze. Mr. and Mrs. Chatterbox were easy; I just had to hit play and make sure I wasn’t the first one to interrupt them. Glasses was patient and polite, which made her a tougher read; I couldn’t tell if I was getting on her nerves or not. Phil was patient too, but I clicked with him the fastest because he didn’t bother concealing his reactions to anything.

It got harder to stay patient when they wouldn’t stop pushing written things on me to see how I would respond. I needed to change tactics. Esther would have come up with something creative by now.

“Okay, no,” I said, shoving the current book aside and replacing it with the open journal. “Enough with the language arts — ” I made a talking mouth with my hand — “you know I’m not going to get any of it.” I woosh’d a hand over my head and hoped in hindsight that it didn’t look violent. “Here’s what we’re doing now.” I stabbed one of Esther’s sparkly gel pens into the page. “Pictionary.”

Mrs. Chatterbox pointed to the pen. “Pic…shunerry?”

I also pointed to it and nodded vigorously, because why not. If that became their word for gel pen hereafter, so be it. “Pictionary.”

My family takes games very seriously, dear reader. I’m talking cutthroat, smack-talking, useless-skill-honing, spend-half-an-hour-arguing-over-an-ambiguity-in-the-rule-book competition. So when I tell you I was the second worst Pictionary player in the house, you’d better believe it was well documented. I also quickly realized how much less fun the game is when you can’t understand the other person’s guesses.

Still, we were making slightly more progress now that I was drawing. I illustrated all the parts of my story that I could remember clearly. When I got to the first creature I encountered, everyone recognized it immediately. The good news was those things were common enough that there was a medicine available for the enzymes they spit, a bitter-smelling goo that immediately made my shoulder and leg feel better when rubbed in. The bad news was, those things were common. They called them ushussna, and it turned out they were one of the main incentives to live in trees. They wouldn’t climb them, I believe because the bark contained some kind of chemical they didn’t like. Did that mean the ground-dwellers were just out of luck if one showed up?

No one recognized Slothtopus no matter how carefully I drew it, though Braid got pretty worked up over my sketch and wanted to keep it.

We moved on to discussing maps. They had several on hand, one of the forest region and one covering a much broader area. They looked like they were drawn for accuracy, not like some of the old-timey maps from history class where you could tell they were either just guessing or got bored halfway through and drew monsters instead of finishing. Everything was well defined, but you couldn’t exactly call it finished. At a certain point the land just faded abruptly into blank space. And to my dismay, none of the landmarks looked at all familiar.

I had to confirm something before we went any further. I’d put off facing the fact while I was busy staying alive, and I was dreading a definite answer, but all the signs indicated that Kansas had indeed gone bye-bye. I began drawing a dripping blob for the United States, with a macaroni elbow halfway down the West Coast and some arrows pointing from it to a stick figure of me. They could tell what that meant, but no one seemed to recognize the geography. I drew more blobs for South America, Africa, Asia, and…where do you even start with Europe? I looked up — more blank stares.

“Okay, forget Europe. Who cares about them anyway.” I ran my finger around my crude map. “Earth?”

Glasses ran her finger around their big map. “Var.” She did the same to the forest — “Effoc — ” then pointed to a square with one hand and out the window with the other. “Brenest.”

“Okay,” I said barely above a whisper. I drew a circle around the four-and-a-quarter continents of my world, added something jagged at the bottom for Antarctica, put a big diagonal line through the whole thing, and slumped back in my seat.

I wasn’t ready for how devastating it was to know for certain.

Was Var their country? A continent? Though it was hard to get a sense of the scale, there was no way it could be the whole planet. Maybe it was just all they had mapped? It was hard to get a read on how advanced these people were.

The tapping of rain on the roof faded out and gave way to slow dripping from the branches above us, and sunlight appeared in a window. Glasses went over to the awning at the back and tugged on what looked like a vine strung along its edges. The vine retracted, coiled, and pulled up the awning to reveal an open balcony with a prime view of the whole clearing, lit by shafts of afternoon slanting through the breaking clouds. I took a much-needed break to lean over the balcony and take it all in: the fields and gardens that covered the bulk of the sunny space, the river-fed pond with its dam and waterwheel, the smell of wet forest and agriculture, the sounds of running water and cottage industry. Beyond the edges of the clearing could be seen more treehouses and suspension bridges, and teams of workers high in the branches dropping down bales of the clinging plants they were harvesting.

They let me stay out there as long as I wanted. From their subdued conversation, it sounded like they needed some time to think through all the implications themselves.

On returning to the table, I flipped to the page where I’d scrawled “your forest is the worst” and made an addendum: “but your town could be worse.”

Once I figured out how to orient their map to my idea of east, west, etc, they wanted to find where I had landed. Braid and Mr. Chatterbox kept indicating the south edge, trying to ask if I’d come from there. I got it through to them that I’d only been walking a day and part of a night, which by their estimate put my starting point far short of the edge. There were two types of hatching on the forest map, and it seemed like the darker parts stood for what I was calling in my head the Dementrified Forest, the warped areas I’d gone out of my way to avoid yesterday.

Another man arrived, out of breath and visibly ticked off. Braid and Glasses went over to him as soon as he entered and had a heated, whispered exchange. Maybe he hadn’t been invited? They didn’t seem too keen on him talking to me. I kept the corner of my eye on them and pretended not to notice. They came to some kind of agreement after a few minutes and sat down together.

I put a finger on the map’s southern edge and traced it outward, looking up at Glasses. “What’s past here?”

She and a few others made gestures for “No.” My every inquiry about that part of the map met with essentially the same reaction, leaving me stymied. It wasn’t all that far away from us compared to other regions. Was the rest of the forest really so dangerous that no one had explored it?

Regardless, no one wanted to talk about it. The only exception was the guy who had shown up late, and he was keeping his mouth shut rather than rile the rest of them up.

“Venus, Mercury, and Earth, that’s me. At least I think that’s how it goes? Then Mars, and then it’s all space potatoes for a while…”


“Aaaand this is a demented shark…It’s not important, I’m just good at drawing them.”


“This is Oregon. You sure you don’t recognize it? Feel free to let me know now if this is all some huge prank. I’ll give a good reaction for the cameras…No? Fantastic.”


“Six lines…Now here, here, here, here…This is an S. It’s a sacred symbol that you put all over your notebooks to feel like a graffiti artist.”

Pictionary was yielding diminishing returns. I could satisfy their curiosity, but I wasn’t learning anything else useful. Bored and frustrated, I flipped back to make one final attempt at improving the drawing I’d made of the messaging device from Esther’s room. If I could get any of them to recognize that, it would be the best lead I had so far.

It was my fourth try at replicating the crazy geometry and still no one was getting it. “See, all these squares make a circle — oh, forget it!” I swiped the journal off the table and it fell to the floor, closed. Phil picked it up without a word. Rather than force it on me, he sat across from me and opened it himself to inspect it more closely. An exclamation made me look up to see him staring and flipping through it. When he slid it over, all I saw in it were blank pages.

I flipped, squinted, tilted, and held pages up to the light while making the full range of dumb surprise noises. Finally I closed and reopened it.

All my scribbles and drawings were back.

Braid beckoned and I handed it to him. He closed and opened it.

Blank.

Back to me. Close, open — scribbles and drawings.

This set off a round of intense debate. I saw some subtle looks and fingers pointed at me that I didn’t like. I held up my hands, protesting, “I’m as confused as you are. More confused. Please don’t burn me.”

They eventually calmed down and concluded that solving that particular mystery would have to wait. Evening was approaching and everyone looked ready to pack it in. Before we finished, though, there was one last thing I’d forgotten to draw earlier that might be worthwhile. I tried doodling the symbol I had found traced out by the stream yesterday.

Phil sat up and got the others’ attention as soon as he saw it. Glasses went straight to the shelf and brought back a well-used book with a leathery cover, on which was marked almost the exact same design.

They conferred swiftly among themselves. I was able to gather that there was somewhere else they wanted to take me, but it would have to wait until tomorrow. That was fine by me. I was still tired enough from my wandering that I would probably have slept clear through the day if no one had woken me for my orientation. We called it quits for now.

The central treehouse complex had guest accommodations, meaning they could string up a spare hammock at a moment’s notice. I went to bed that night feeling downright civilized. They had a shower, albeit one that squirted cold water in a suspiciously organic pulsing rhythm and smelled kind of like broccoli. The amount of grossness I’d already been through made using Esther’s toothbrush almost palatable by comparison, though I still spent a long time rinsing it first. And leftover exhaustion canceled out the usual difficulty of falling asleep in a new place.

So I was good and groggy for the two cloaked figures who shook my hammock in the middle of the night.

They each had one of the bioluminescent glowsticks, but with the light dimmed so I couldn’t make out their faces. When I scrambled out of the hammock incoherently demanding who, what, and why, they gestured for me to keep my voice down.

I’d been given a glowstick of my own, but I decided this wasn’t the time for courtesy and shone the flashlight straight in their eyes instead. I palmed the pepper spray and made ready to use it if anyone got abduct-y.

When my eyes adjusted, I recognized one of them as the man who had shown up late to the meeting, whose name I remembered was Pargest. The other was a woman I hadn’t seen before. They held up their palms. No weapons, no force, they just wanted to talk.

Reluctant and yawning, I followed them to the big room where my examination had taken place. We huddled around the table in the light of the woman’s glowstick as she laid out another map.

I lowered my head to the table with a quiet thunk. “If you want to keep doing the map thing that badly, at least try it when I’m awake. All I feel like doing right now is ripping it up.”

She tapped a region of the Dementrified Forest that had been circled, the part of the map that was supposed to be off limits, and spoke.

“Blah blah seekers bleh Effoc blah knowledge bleh blah.”

My head popped right back up. “Whoa.” She hadn’t said the English words seekers or knowledge. That was just what those particular blahs meant, I knew without a doubt as soon as I heard them.

“Okay,” I said, staring. “I’m awake.”

She traced a line from the village to the circled region, tapped it again, and pointed at me.

“How did you do that?”

“Blah bleh bleh blah blah.”

“For the love of mustard — ”

So I was supposed to go back into that twisted place with them if I wanted answers? They apparently knew something the others didn’t, and more to the point, they could sort of communicate it.

That ability raised a big red flag, though. I’d seen this kind of thing once before in a different form. You don’t forget your first time, and I was thinking about the message device Esther’s kidnappers had used to lure her away.

Was it just a coincidence? It couldn’t hurt to try a bluff. If they were being up front with me, they probably wouldn’t understand it anyway.

“I’m not going anywhere until you tell me where Esther is.”

Pargest recognized the name from our earlier conversation and gave me an inquisitive look. “Esther,” I repeated. “My sister. Where did your people take her?”

No Esther. We can show blah blah blah.”

“Ugghhhh! Useless,” I hissed.

He beckoned me out to the balcony and pointed across the clearing, where a light shone faintly among the trees. He covered and uncovered his glowstick three times, and the other light did the same.

Whoever they wanted to bring me to out there had better have a bigger vocabulary than they did. But even if…

“Nope.” I shook my head. I just got out of the Dementrified Forest after being convinced I would die there. I wasn’t ready to go back on the word of these cloak-and-dagger weirdos.

“Bleh bleh blah knowledge?”

On the other hand, that was a very persuasive word.

I still refused, but before going back to bed, I let them show me a ladder on one of the nearby platforms that I could use to reach the ground silently. They would be waiting again tomorrow night if I changed my mind. All I had to do was signal them from the balcony.

Falling asleep was a lot harder this time around.

Phil and I were back to looking at maps. If none of the non-creepy people here would tell me about the southern forest, I could at least learn something about the other nearby regions.

East of Effoc were what looked like flatlands, with rivers, hills, and more settlements or possibly cities. When I pointed to the most prominent city close to the forest, Phil drew three scraggly lines through it and gave me another no.

“Oh great, more forbidden places. Okay then, what about these?” I pointed past the flatlands to what I could only assume were mountains. Drawing a bunch of pointy things was universal enough for me to be confident of that. Phil couldn’t convey much to me except that there were people there.

It was a slim lead, but I had reason to believe now that seeing Esther on top of a mountain wasn’t just a drug hallucination. That mountain range could be as good a goal as any — unless the offer I’d gotten last night was legitimate.

Braid appeared in the doorway and signaled that it was time to go. The three of us took the elevator down and headed toward the east end of the village.

Someone had rustled up a set of teen-size clothes (mine were starting to smell pretty noticeably), and to my endless gratitude, a pair of shoes. They weren’t a great fit and the material on the inside felt weird and slippery, but they were supple, decently comfortable, and best of all, not a bag. A cloak to keep the rain off completed the ensemble.

I could understand what was going on in some of the shops we passed, like woodworking or metalworking, but those were a minority. It looked like most of what they manufactured was produced by way of living things, of which we saw a dizzying variety. Livestock were all over the place, some in pens, some apparently roaming free, some looking much more like walking or crawling plants than animals. I recalled the whirlybird “bugs” I’d seen in the woods.

I was getting a clearer picture of how life worked in Brenest. They grew a portion of their food here in the clearing, but most of their economy was based on cultivating and harvesting the vine-like plants that grew in the forest canopy, which apparently had valuable herbal and medicinal properties. They had developed a thriving trade with peoples beyond the forest, which would explain why outsiders were a normal part of life.

Speaking of which, was it just me or were the villagers not nearly as friendly today? I wondered how much of yesterday’s interview had gotten out.

At the end of the clearing, a short path led us through the trees to a smaller clearing, a gathering space if the worn-down grass and wide patches of dirt were any indication. We interrupted a dance practice when we entered, causing a group of children who looked a few years younger than me to break formation and stare at us despite the best efforts of the women coaching them.

The pale odeana fungus encircled the entire field like I’d seen it encircling buildings, only this time its pattern was clearly man-made: two concentric, loosely braided circles. Even though I’d been invited, I couldn’t help feeling like I was trespassing as I stepped over the circle, vaguely recalling some story Esther had shared with me about fairy rings.

At the other end of the field stood a structure of a kind completely new to me. Apart from its wooden roof, I couldn’t tell where earth, tight-knit plants, and wood construction began and ended. Phil and I hung back while Braid entered through a beaded curtain.

While we were waiting, I bugged Phil for more information on the odeana, now that it was clear to me they grew them on purpose. He took the journal and flipped to my ushussna sketch. With gestures and a little more Pictionary, he explained that a ring of odeana, the bulk of which was underground, repelled the ushussna in a similar fashion to tree bark. It looked like the fungus was the only reason people could feel safe living on the ground.

Stepping on them was a faux pas because they were important, not because they were dangerous. Maybe it was a matter of respect as well?

The moms, meanwhile, had more or less given up on keeping their dancers under control while the newcomer kid was around to distract them. I might as well make friends with them — and if I played it right I’d probably get their parents on my side into the bargain. “You guys like dancing?”

I was in the middle of teaching them the Macarena when Braid called us inside. “Keep practicing,” I told them. “We’ll work on it more later.”

The mood shifted as soon as we were through the curtain. Glowsticks of a different color than I’d seen so far, more like fireflies, lit up the interior at intervals with a dim ambiance that was just barely on the right side of ominous. The glow was refracted into glinting veins along the right-hand side. A closer look showed that the veins were translucent crystal running along the surface of the rough, opaque crystalline formation that made up most of the wall. I touched one and felt a steady vibration, but I pulled my hand away when it abruptly switched frequencies twice.

If anyone asked me to talk to a crystal, I was out. My parents’ warnings about cults were well drilled. Everything about this place looked like religion and it was putting me on edge. There were stylized paintings of people and scenes from stories toward the far end, entwined with a pattern that looked like a network of fine, intricate roots. A soft circle of natural light fell from an opening in the ceiling onto them and the low earthen dais they surrounded. Behind the dais was another curtain, swaying gently in the wind.

We stepped onto a tiled floor flanked by stone benches along the walls, and I looked down to see a mosaic of that same symbol from the book and the stream. I lost a little of my initial fondness for it on seeing it in this uncomfortable place.

Both of my companions made some complicated hand motions and bows, then looked at me expectantly. I had to get Phil to walk me through it, but of course he couldn’t explain what any of it meant.

A man stood up from one of the benches near the dais, dressed in an official-looking tunic and sash. He spoke and made some hand motions of his own toward us, and for a second I got a nasty premonition that I was about to be sacrificed. Instead he proceeded to greet us normally and lead us back out into the woods through a side passage.

Whatever was outside that curtain at the far end of the sanctuary, it couldn’t be seen from the side. The space was partly encircled by a sloping earthen wall, and farther on by tightly packed tree trunks. What I could see, though, were some of the lines radiating out from it: a vein of rock here, a little stream there, a thick tangle of creepers elsewhere. It gave me a chill, but not in the same way the Dementrified Forest had, not in a corrupted way. It definitely didn’t seem safe, even by Effoc standards, and I doubt it was meant to.

To my relief, we put all of that behind us and went into a comfortably furnished little house just beyond the gathering field. The man (priest?) in the tunic had us sit down in the front room, and after a few minutes a woman in a plain-looking dress came in, looking like she’d just come from work. They spoke to each other, then tried speaking with me, but by then I was mostly out of it. As nice as they sounded, I just wanted the whole encounter to be over.

I let her hold my hands while she closed her eyes and talked under her breath, but afterward, when everyone kept their eyes closed and fell silent for minutes on end, I couldn’t take any more.

“I’m sorry, sir, ma’am. Thanks and all, but I’m sorry, I’ve got to go.” I bowed awkwardly to everyone and rushed out before they could say anything. I doubted any of that would have been helpful, and I had enough spookiness going on without getting mixed up in theirs.

My mind was in turmoil as I walked back to the village center. I put on a good face for a bit when some of the friendlier kids wanted me to join in their game, but they barely cheered me up. I was getting more uneasy looks from the adults, even a few hostile ones.

The way I saw it, I could stay here where it was sort of safe and tough it out, try to learn the language and convince them I wasn’t dangerous until I was able to move forward…or I could take a big risk and maybe get some answers sooner. Every day I waited was one extra day it would take me to find Esther.

I went to bed early that evening, with an alarm set on my watch that woke me in the middle of the night. Once I made sure it hadn’t woken anyone else, I crept to the balcony and blinked the flashlight three times.

Almost immediately there came three answering blinks from across the clearing.

“This is stupid,” I told myself. But I went back to my quarters and put on the backpack anyway. As an afterthought, I also left a brief thank-you note on the hammock. No one would be able to read it, but Mom would approve.

Time to go. For Esther, and for my own sanity.

I didn’t run into anyone in the streets, and there was only one path that led in the direction of the signal. There was no light visible as I approached, and no one appeared to greet me, so I stopped a short way into the woods and looked back. Should I signal again or just wait?

Footsteps crackled through the brush behind me. I can be excused for thinking it was a group of people, or even a group of animals. With that many footsteps, it should have been. But nope, when I turned around there was only one. One of a species I’d seen before from a distance and never wanted to see any closer.

Its body was as long as I remembered, covered in a knobbly, segmented sort of carapace. I thought it only came up to my chest, but that was before it raised its head. I counted ten sinewy, high-jointed legs, and at least four eyes around its loudly chewing mouth. Nothing with a mouth that complicated could be good news.

I brandished the pepper spray at arm’s length in front of me, holding it with both hands as if that would protect me more.

It slowed to a stop, almost on top of me, and finished chewing. Then, quick as blinking, it unfurled a pair of rough prehensile tongues and licked my face.

More startled than anything else, I let loose with the spray. The beast squealed and scuttled backwards, and someone shouted a command. A man appeared around a bend in the path, carrying a large bag and wearing a pair of leathery leggings like a cowboy’s chaps. He walked up to it speaking in a soothing voice, put a hand on its side and got it to calm down until it was huffing and growling softly.

He turned to greet me as if nothing had happened, then hefted the bag onto the creature’s back.

“Oh no.” I backed away. He ignored me and mounted what I had thought was just an ugly growth but turned out to be a complicated saddle. One of two.

He tossed a second pair of chaps at me.

“Heck no.”

Pargest appeared around the bend, waved to me and exchanged a few words with Chaps, then motioned me to saddle up. Apparently he wasn’t coming with us. If whatever he was involved in was some big secret, maybe he couldn’t leave at the moment without drawing attention to himself.

“You’re serious? You’re leaving me with this…this — ” I turned back toward the leggy beast and got licked in the face again before I could come up with a suitable epithet.

In the end, I gave in. It felt like I was in too deep to back out now. And it could all still be worth it if this was what it took to get comprehensible answers to my questions.

Like the question of why these saddles included full-body harnesses, for instance.

I got my answer to that one as soon as Chaps whistled and tugged on some flaps behind our mount’s head, causing it to bound forward. It knew its way in the dark without being steered, but it didn’t follow anything a human would consider a trail. We were taking the most direct route, no matter what kind of obstacles were in the way, and we weren’t slowing down for any of them. I would have been bucked off in the first ten seconds.

I already regretted everything within the first six.

Next:
6. Lords of the Edge

Previous:
4. Dear The Monster That Gets Me,


AUTHOR’S NOTE:
ATTENTION LANGUAGE NERDS. It didn’t take me long to conclude that faithfully recording every culture’s nonverbal communication would be a huge pain in the neck. I hated keeping track of that mess then, and I don’t feel like keeping track of it now unless it ties in to something relevant. So because I can, it’s going to be good old American nods, shakes, eyebrow raises, saucy winks, etc. for everyone from now on. Sorry if that detracts from your immersion or whatever.
And to all you non–language nerds: you’re welcome.

4. Dear The Monster That Gets Me,

You’ll want to eat what’s in my girly backpack next. Might I suggest starting with the little black canister. Make sure you twist the top first. If you’re still hungry after that, try the pointy metal things and the one that lights up. Make you feel all tingly inside.


Dear Tori,

I have a better near death story than you now, nya nya nyanya nya. I guess its not really a near death story if I actually die but try and top getting eaten by mutant forest monsters. I fought some of them off first so I’m already more badass than you.
OK what really happened was I ran away a bunch and pepper sprayed one of them, but when you and Essie tell my story, give me a machete or a flamethrower or something. Or just have me thrashing on them with my bare fists, that’s cool too.

Take care of yourself, man. Everyone’s got to face down the demons. Youll kick their butt someday soon.


Dear Mom and Dad,

Good news and bad news. Your schedule for next school year just got a lot more relaxed

Bet you never thought following her footsteps instead of Tori would get me killed. So much for

I’m so sorry.

I should have told you. I should have stopped this. Coulda woulda shoulda done most things better. Is it any less of a disappointment that I went out trying to make it right? I miss you, and home, and everyone. Guess this is what it takes to make me appreciate it all. Don’t be mad when you find the missing blender in my room. It’s a long story and I’m pretty sure it’s fixable
You did everything you could, Mom. It’s not your fault.


Dear Esther,

HA, I’ve got your journal now. This is what you get

What was the point of keeping this stupid thing locked up if you weren’t even writing in it

Turn this into one of your stories, why don’t you. Kiara and Doc Get Banished to the Back End of Nowhere and He Dies of Starvation and She Gets

What were you thinking?

You’re supposed to be the smart one. And the everything else one. Why would you do this to us? You used to at least trust me enough to drag me along. This is what happens when I have to drag myself.
Is this what you wanted? I try to do something on my own for once, I try to be the responsible one and this is where it gets me. Did you know about this place? Did you know how messed up this whole place is? Can’t even walk on the ground. It’s so dark now, I havent seen the moon all night and barely any stars. You left me a decent CD but I can’t even get halfway through it without feeling awful.
At least now everyone’s going to see who you really are. You’re impossible You’re stuck up and selfish.
I hope you’re happy I hope you read this. I hope you got away.
I don’t hate you.


Just one voice would be fine. One human voice that isn’t Stephan Jenkins please. Shouldn’t have left me markers. I’m gonna end up drawing faces on these big seed pod thingys before long.


Dear aliens,


TOO QUIET. SOMETHING MIGHT FIND ME IF I KEEP YELLING SO I NEED TO YELL IN HERE. THIS IS STUPID AND UNFAIR AND DUMB AND IF THERES MORE TO THE UNIVERSE WHY DID I HAVE TO FIND IT OUT LIKE THIS AND WHY ARE GIRLS SO DUMB AAAaaaAAAA


[Insert two full pages of assorted expletives]


Is my obituary just going to say Esther’s Brother?


Why is everything too alive?


After an hour of being stuck in a tree with no one to talk to and nothing to do but wait, I had turned to writing. It wasn’t enough to distract me from my thoughts.

At first I had opened Esther’s journal in search of answers, any record of what was going through her head leading up to this mess. It was the kind with a little built-in padlock, which I could have picked, but one more ransacking of the backpack turned up the key. Instead of clues, all I found inside were blank pages. A handful of them had been torn out from the front. “Really? Does everything here have to be a gyp?”

The reason I was stuck in the tree was that I had no plan to protect myself once I was on the ground again. The closest thing I had to a plan was to head west, downhill, on the assumption that the forest had to end at some point, but that would only work if I could walk without getting swallowed. It was hard to tell in the rain and low light if the slime creature was still around. I saw something stir in the understory after I threw some seed pods into it, and chose not to find out in person. By the time the rain cleared up, the sun was setting, and I resigned myself to staying where I was until I could at least see what was coming to kill me.

I was a little cleaner now, and a lot damper. I’d attempted to wash off some of the slime and dirt in the rain, even though it left me shivering with no way to dry off. The stinging patches didn’t feel any better after I cleaned them, but they weren’t getting any worse. I had also refilled the water bottle with runoff from the branches.

I’ll admit it, there were tears that night. Facing down your mortality for the first time is hard enough even when you don’t have to do it alone, bewildered, and in the dark.

The surprising thing is that I got any sleep at all. When I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer, I tried to break off some smaller branches to form a perimeter and stop myself from rolling off the crude little platform I’d made. When that failed pathetically, I had the bright idea of looping one of the backpack’s straps over a branch and shoving my arms and upper torso through the other one as an uncomfortable safety harness. I passed out briefly, then sat up for several more hours to watch the forest slowly brighten and come awake. It was a mercifully short night, only eight hours and forty-one minutes, of which I’d managed to sleep for fifty-two.

At least, those were the numbers that felt right when I checked my watch, and I was too frazzled to question why I was so sure of them.

After exhaustive testing (read: chucking lots of seed pods at the ground), it looked like the slime thing had moved on during the night. I still trod as lightly as I could while making my escape. I couldn’t be sure if the dinky little bubble compass built into the survival tool had ever worked, but in any case, it was pointing all over the place now. I’d have to just do my best to walk the opposite way from the rising sun and keep going downhill.

Although nothing attacked me that morning, I got more uncomfortable the more I saw of the forest. I had to admit that most of it was beautiful in a primal, mythic sort of way. And the abundance of wild green after the arid vistas and landscaped yards I was used to reminded me of the thickets behind our old home in Connecticut. But then I would find sections of it that struck me as not just different, but wrong.

A series of meadows, for instance, where there were enough flowers together for me to notice they were all pointing in the same radial direction. Looking closer, I saw the growths on the trees also facing as if toward a common center. Then, farther in, the branches of the trees themselves. I gave up on investigating when I noticed the ground sloping downward, like I was walking into a funnel. There were no animal sounds nearby, only a low hum coming from the ground.

Elsewhere, I found branches from one tree growing into another, and a little farther on I started seeing trunks twisting and merging into each other. Beyond that I could glimpse outlines of stranger shapes melded into the wood, but changed course without daring to find out what they were. The whole thing was beginning to look too much like a maze or cage for my liking.

I skirted areas that smelled mostly of decay, where the trees were losing their needles and the wilted brown undergrowth seemed to be spreading, reaching out to take in more of the surrounding life. The overall impression I was getting was of a biome in conflict with itself.

Each time I went out of my way to avoid something unsettling, I found myself drifting to my left, north according to the sun. Before long I was going that way by default, because it was working. Less of what I saw as the day wore on felt like a “what’s wrong with this picture” puzzle.

Not to say that I felt comfortable or even much safer. Safety didn’t seem to be an option here. Whenever I took a rest, I made sure none of the nearby plants were moving. When I found a river and stopped to refill my bottle, a dark shape near the other bank poked its eyes above the water to stare at me until I left. Some of its eyes, anyway – I saw at least three. And once, I heard a distant commotion of trampled undergrowth and looked just in time to spot something sinuous and segmented, as long as a pickup truck and with too many legs, gallivanting away into the shadows.

My mind was done being blown by unearthly sights for the time being; in fact I was actively avoiding thinking about them and the connotation “unearthly” in particular. I was too busy stressing about how alone I was. I’d never gone this long without someone to talk to, let alone help me stay alive. I went back to ranting at Esther for a while for getting us into this, but that only made me feel worse when I thought about what was probably happening to her.

It was back to my inner thoughts, which was no improvement. The jar of bees, as Dad would call it, that real silence let loose in my head was worse than the growling in my stomach, which for a thirteen-year-old boy is saying a lot.

The rain returned in the afternoon, and I had more success cleaning off some of the grime and sweat this time. I was following a river by then, into which I’d have jumped without hesitation had I been anywhere normal. As it was, I had to psych myself up just to stick my feet in while the rest of me dried off.

My right foot was surprisingly blister-free where the sock was still intact, but the tears were getting bigger. To get an extra layer between me and the ground, I emptied the Ziploc bag, feeling a little uncomfortable, and attempted to tape it over my foot. Just as I finished, I heard something rustle in the pile I’d dumped out and looked over to see a small red creature dragging off a tampon. It looked amphibious, like a salamander with more fins. Sure enough, it scurried a short way through the grass and slipped into one of the little streams that fed into the river.

“Nope, little crime against nature, that’s not a stick. Get back here.” I didn’t know what I’d ever be able to use feminine protection for (I won’t pretend I was smart enough to consider first aid), but it took a lot less than being stranded in a deadly nightmare forest to activate my hoarder instincts. I followed the animal until it disappeared under a tangle of submerged plants where the stream divided. It didn’t re-emerge, but I noticed a few others like it swimming and crawling around nearby, some of them also carrying things in their mouths.

The course of the stream itself caught my attention now that I was looking more closely. It was being split and spread out by a collection of little tussocks or islands, to the point where it essentially became a broad, shallow body of water up ahead. Still farther on, it began to look more like a pattern formed by the water, vegetation, and whatever the salamanders were building. And there were a lot more than just salamanders living in it, like clusters of bugs scooting along the surface and fishlike things wriggling around in places where it got surprisingly deep.

As the pattern grew more pronounced and more regular, I got excited. I didn’t know what nature was capable of out here, but square corners? Those were a people thing. There were staggered rows, almost a lattice, emerging in the arrangement of pools and islands. Looking behind me, if I didn’t know better, I would have said the watercourse was growing outward from here, making its own organic variations on the structure. I couldn’t even keep track of which way it was flowing. The needles and leaves I saw fall into it were being pulled in different directions, following invisible currents here and there.

The whole thing finally converged into a narrow channel, a small round pool, and then a set of intertwining curves that looked something like this,

before branching off in two opposite directions. I collapsed onto a nearby stump, stared at the shape, and tried hard not to get my hopes up.

As rough around the edges as the channels were from erosion and plant growth, I would swear that they’d been dug, however long ago. But after all the weirdness I’d seen that day, could I be sure this wasn’t more of the same? “You still messing with me?” I yelled into the air. “Is this another trap? The salamanders were cute, I’ll give you that. I fell for that. Nice one.”

I hung my head, which forced me to pay attention to the stump I was sitting on, and quickly felt like an idiot. I hadn’t registered that the top of the stump was flat, almost smooth – sawed off.

A quick search turned up another just like it. It didn’t take long to find the trees they belonged to, limbed and lined up like a barrier beside one of the streams. And on the other side, overgrown but unmistakably, gloriously man-made, a path.

And as the good book says, there was much rejoicing. I hope I didn’t traumatize the salamanders too much.

The sun was already setting, and I wasn’t spending another night draped over branches if there was even a fraction of a chance I could make it to humans and shelter. I cranked up the flashlight and bullied my legs into continuing.

Eyes glinted out at me from between the trees every now and then. I recalled the advice I’d heard about hiking in mountain lion territory at twilight. 1) Don’t do it. 2) If you have to do it, make noise to discourage them from stalking you. Maybe that wouldn’t work on whatever night vision hunters they had out here, but what the heck, I felt like making noise. And my singing should be enough to repel anything.

Just when I was ready to give up for the night, looking for another tree to climb, a speck of light way down the trail caught the corner of my eye. Once I switched the flashlight off and let my vision adjust, I could actually see several lights, two of them steady bluish glows that could have been the lures of some gross nocturnal predator. But I only cared about the brightest, a cheerful flickering orange.

Firelight.

The villagers on the outskirts of Brenest were getting ready to turn in when a terrible sound from the surrounding woods shattered their peaceful night. Some feared it was the battle chant of an incoming bandit squad, but they soon realized it was just one person. One young person singing himself hoarse in a tongue unknown to them and a voice that had no business singing anything.

“GREEEEENSLEEVES, THEY NEVER GET DIRTY, THE LONGER YOU WEAR THEM THE GREENER THEY GET. SOOOOOMETIMES, I THINK I SHOULD WASH THEM BUT SOMETHING INSIDE OF ME TELLS ME NOT YET, NOT YET, NOT YET…”

A small crowd with glowsticks (and a few regular sticks just in case) quickly gathered by the path in time to see the young person stumble into view, let his song trail off, and grin at them like an imbecile. One man stepped out in front of the rest to block the path.

“Hi,” I said.

He said something incomprehensible and commanding.

“Can I hug you?”

More un-American gibberish followed, but I was too giddy at the postponement of my death to care. I was ready to collapse where I stood, and more urgently, running out of songs my sleep-deprived brain could remember the words to. This was my new favorite person, just for being a person.

He did not appreciate the hug, for the record.

Next:
5. Pictionary: First Contact Edition

Previous:
3. Planet Oregon

3. Planet Oregon

When I woke, it was nothing but trees. Giant ones like evergreens, looming up to fence off the lonely little patch of sky above me. I sat up, feeling sore, in a patch of some prickly but yielding plants.

I picked out a few solid thoughts from the soup of phantasmal impressions dribbling out of my brain: confronting Esther in the valley, something pulling her away from me, the Links, wind and pain, then some gobbledygook visions. I shook myself, got slowly to my feet, and shouted for Esther. For anyone.

There’s no need to go over the next twenty-odd minutes in detail. Maybe I took it all in stride like the jaded modern youth I was. Or there could maybe have been some panic. Who’s to say? Not really crucial to the story. What matters is that I was alone, in a place like nowhere I’d ever been.

My first guess was Oregon.

I’d seen sequoia forests in the Sierras, but this was too damp and overgrown for that – saturated, in a word. It must have been as ancient as any redwood grove. Even the air was old, millennia’s worth of the circle of life distilled into vapor. Every breath smelt and felt like moss would start growing in my lungs if I took too many. The forest floor was a mini jungle of small plants like the one I’d landed on – and plenty of animal life too, judging by the constant humming, squeaking, and clicking in the background – all over a carpet of needles, moss, and damp humus.

Wandering around at random like a puppy with its head in a jar would be pointless, I realized after a while of wandering around like a puppy with its head in a jar, and sat down on a rock to get my thoughts in order. I knew Esther had been taken, even if I couldn’t recall exactly how. The image of her in some alpine meadow was consigned to the gobbledygook visions category pending further evidence. I’d watched enough news to know what happened to young girls who were lured away from home and abducted. The twist was that I’d been taken too, just not to someone’s basement. I considered the possibility that I’d angered the Black SUV Squad (or cartel), who had drugged me and driven me off to the middle of nowhere to be eaten by a bear or a survivalist hermit tripping on the mushrooms grown in his beard. Being drugged would go a long way toward explaining both the things I remembered so vividly and the one thing I couldn’t remember at all, despite an urgent feeling that I ought to. It didn’t explain why they would bother driving me this far north when there were plenty of deserts and the Pacific Ocean to drop me in.

Everything I’d had on me was still there too: Esther’s backpack, half of the broken Links, the same clothes. My watch was still working, but it now told me it was just past midnight on January first. Someone or something had reset it just a minute or two before I woke. But these were all questions to worry about once I got out of the woods.

They might have used an off-road vehicle, but there was always a chance that I was still near a road. If I could only get high enough in one of the trees, I might spot it. I looked around, but didn’t see any low enough branches. There was one tree leaning against two others at a shallow enough angle that I might be able to reach the lower canopy by climbing it, but fallen trees and I weren’t on speaking or climbing terms just yet. I might have to suck it up if I wanted to get out of here, though.

I rubbed my arms; now that I was out of the sun, it was too chilly for basketball shorts and a hand-me-down Offspring t-shirt. Plus, my right foot was all wet now. I’d been too distracted to notice it was in a mud puddle. I wiggled my ankle to give it an idle stir.

The puddle stirred back.

I jumped up with a yelp only to fall backward when the puddle impersonator refused to let go of my sneaker, almost like that cornstarch goop we all made at some point in science class. One hand squelched into more of the same substance up to the mid-forearm, but it wasn’t until the squeezing started that I knew for sure I was in trouble.

A dark green glistening mass was moving its way up my arm, while the same was happening to my foot. With the one hand and foot I had on solid ground, I braced myself and yanked my foot out of the engulfed sneaker. When I tried to extract my arm, the stuff only pulled back harder. I could now see it was much bigger than a couple of puddles, with more of it gathering together and moving in my direction. I looked around wildly for anything to use against it. There was a fallen branch nearby, but it proved to be just out of arm’s reach.

The cold stickiness was up to my elbow now, and beginning to reach my lower body. I pivoted, stretching out with my legs for the branch until I was flat on my back. My feet closed on it just as the creature grasped the back of my head and neck.

I pulled away from it with a spin that would have made any break dancer proud and a screech that would have made any little girl envious. As soon as the branch was in my free hand, I stabbed maniacally at the gelatinous flesh around my arm and felt a shudder. The good news was that its grip loosened. The bad news was that I saw and heard the shudder spread out in a wave across all the nearby forest floor.

My arm slid free with a deeply uncomfortable sucking sensation, stinging from where my stabbing frenzy had scratched it but otherwise unhurt, and I ran in what I thought was the opposite direction from the creature. I only made it a few steps before more squelches dispelled that error. Not only did its dark greens and browns make for ideal camouflage, the dappled light made avoiding it on the run even harder. I was about to just pick a direction and hope that I could trample over it fast enough not to get caught when there was a pulse of motion across the ground up ahead, converging in front of me to thrust up an amorphous appendage more than half my height. Basketball reflexes turned out to be good for something after all as I spun out of its way, only to stumble into a shallower patch on my hands and knees.

I pulled free before I could lose another shoe or sock. The pseudopod lunged and missed me by inches. I ran for the only surface that looked unmistakably slime-free, a big half-rotted log just yards away. A flying leap and a scramble over powdery, crumbling wood, and I was out of harm’s way for the moment.

The Oregon hypothesis was looking shaky.

I knew the Pacific Northwest had some big slugs, but the nature magazines had left out the sentient army-camo booger monsters. I knew about slime molds, but one would think they’d get more Discovery Channel specials if they could get this big and fast. I also had a nasty suspicion that I’d read about them explicitly in connection with rotting logs.

This one at any rate wasn’t making a move to climb up after me. It was still moving plenty, though; more than half the ground was rippling by now. It was thicker in some spots than others. I was lucky that I’d first encountered it at the edge where it was more spread out. From my new vantage point I could see what looked like a steadily shrinking patch of dry ground, leading away from the far end of the log, that might be my only way out.

The creature was pulsating again, bunching up into more pseudopods on either side of the log. When I ran toward the opening, they struck, hitting the sides of the log on their first try but aiming higher on the next. Still reluctant to make contact with the wood, I noted. One big blob was forming further down the log, trying to get ahead of me. I put on an extra burst of speed, put my foot through an extra rotten section, and fell extra hard on my face. A pseudopod passed right over me, drawn to the heavy thud.

It couldn’t see me, but it could at least sense vibrations through the ground. I crawled forward as quietly as I could and looked up. It was holding off on attacking, waiting for more vibrations to track. But my escape route was still shrinking. I didn’t have time to inch my way to freedom.

Was there anything in Esther’s backpack I could use? A cursory search turned up a can of pepper spray and one of our Y2K survival gizmos, a flimsy-looking multitool which might have a dull blade in it somewhere. Both of them would be thoroughly useless against something like this. Fire would probably hold it off, but if there were matches or a lighter in there, I couldn’t find them. That, and I had reservations about starting a forest fire while I was in the forest.

I cautiously pulled up two hefty chunks of wood, got to my feet, and threw them as far from the log as I could. Just as I hoped, they caused a stir right around where they landed. With that brief distraction, I broke into a run again.

The nearby pseudopods immediately turned toward me. Fantastic, it could multitask too.

Something flew past my face and I ducked reflexively. A second projectile hit my left shoulder and arm, a gob of viscous fluid. The thing was spitting at me now. I brushed most of it off, but the skin it touched was already starting to sting.

Does Australia have forests like this?

The biggest pseudopod still loomed ahead. I hung back to avoid its predictive lunge, dashed forward as soon as it retracted, and was knocked off balance by one from the opposite side. I’d been too focused on the big one to see it coming.

Unable to check my momentum, on the verge of falling off the side into the rising slime mold (or whatever it was) below, I pushed off into an awkward, oblique long jump. I landed on a thinner patch of slime, slipped, rolled my way through it and into what remained of the open space. I was back up and sprinting in time to avoid the thigh-high wave that formed just behind me. Another wad of spit grazed the back of my leg.

Just when I thought I was almost in the clear, I saw the tell-tale sheen expanding ahead of me as if from nowhere, blocking my way. It was coming right up through the floor, I realized in horror. Goodness only knew how much more of it there was underground.

Outrunning it might not be an option.

I was close to the leaning fallen tree I’d spotted earlier. If my guess that the creature wouldn’t climb trees was right, up might be the only way out. The direct approach was blocked, however. I made for the nearest standing tree, one of a tight cluster that I might be able to use like stepping stones to get closer. As soon as I jumped onto the exposed roots, webs of pulsating green began creeping over them. I had to make an emergency test of my theory, hugging the trunk with my back to it. To my very tempered relief, the creature tolerated the outlying roots but wouldn’t approach as far as the trunk.

All was quiet for a moment, and I made the mistake of taking a breather. I was covered head to mismatched feet in ick by now, with needles and dirt sticking to me in patches, and the pain from that projectile spit was worsening. I noticed movement around the perimeter of the stand of trees, which when I looked closer turned out to be a very literal perimeter, an encircling wall that the slime thing was steadily raising up. I could only assume that if I didn’t make a move soon, it would start closing in.

The pseudopod forming on the roots at my feet was still growing, but more slowly than normal. It was a safe bet that the roots inhibited it somewhat, and there were roots all over the place here. If I was careful where I stepped, I might make it out before the barrier grew too big to hurdle.

I made a run for it, leaping from root to root wherever I could, furiously stomping slime with every footfall where I couldn’t. The upturned root system of the fallen tree, my last hope, was almost within reach when the barrier bunched up to block me.

I launched myself off of a big knot at the base of the last tree, up and over the wall of slime. I clipped the top of it, but still landed messily on the other side, rolling over and over until I hit the dead tree. Immediately I was clawing at the dirt-covered roots to pull myself up as the patch of slime I’d landed in tried to drag me back down. Its tendrils had me by the leg, shoulder, and shirt, with one more reaching up for my left foot.

That was the last straw. Whatever happened, this overgrown snot wasn’t getting my other shoe. I roared, pulled with everything I had, kicked at it, and broke free. I tried climbing higher but was stopped short by a tug on the backpack. One tenacious pseudopod was still clinging to it, dragging it off my shoulders to the ominous sound of zippers unzipping.

I slipped one strap off, secured the other strap by hooking my arm around a root, and grabbed at the backside of the pack to keep it from coming open. With some more adrenaline-fueled pulling and a few more kicks, I got it loose – either that or the creature realized it wasn’t food.

I dragged myself halfway up the sloping trunk before accepting that I really wasn’t being followed and collapsing into the fork between two branches. Screw Oregon, screw Australia, screw whatever this place was. “I hope my shoe gives you food poisoning!” I shouted hoarsely at the huge squirming mess below. “Go die in a Kleenex factory!”

Remembering belatedly that it could still spit at me, I hurried the rest of the way up into the branches of the standing tree. Nowhere to go now but up. Unless I fell, of course.

The branches were dense enough to climb quickly and easily. When I reached a comfortable spot, I lay back across two branches and took a rest, though actually relaxing was out of the question after the reception the forest had just given me.

I was banged up from the falls I’d taken, and whatever the slime thing had squirted me with stung worse than a jellyfish now that the pain’s intensity had leveled off. My bare sock was soaked and torn but still intact enough to use. I took it off for now to avoid any further wear. Miraculously enough, the shoe was the only thing I’d lost. The backpack was all intact, so I took a full inventory of its contents.

Esther really had packed this thing in a hurry. It looked haphazard by her standards, with the main compartment full of things clearly intended for a trip, but the front pouch still containing some of her stuff from school.

In total, my wilderness survival kit consisted of a pencil case with writing implements and markers, scissors, a journal, her little Olympus camera, hair ties, tweezers and nail clippers, a Ziploc bag of tampons and a few toiletries, a roll of athletic tape, a water bottle, a small compression stuff sack with a few pieces of extra clothing and undergarments that I didn’t examine too closely, the multitool and pepper spray mentioned earlier, and most exciting of all, three smushed granola bars. A minute and a half later, the bars were gone and the most exciting thing was a mini hand-cranked flashlight radio. Buried at the bottom, whether left there intentionally or not, I found her CD Walkman and headphones.

The radio yielded nothing but static. Not only did this crush my hopes of finding out where I was, it meant that whatever was in the Walkman would be all I had to listen to out here. The odds of finding something good or some of the trash Esther listened to with her friends were about equal. I squeezed my eyes shut and popped it open, begging for anything but Christina Aguilera.

Third Eye Blind. Unexpected, but I’ll take it. Now time to get myself a better view of this place.

The forest canopy was its own little world of life. I passed a few spots where small nest-like gardens had formed in the tangle between branches, sprouting other plants and fungi. In my paranoid state, the first bugs I encountered had me freaking out trying to brush them off before they could sting, burrow, or lay eggs in me, but I soon got used to them. The most common ones I found were something like a cross between a caterpillar and a centipede with stubby little legs, and flocks of flying, spinning critters that looked uncannily leaflike, as if those helicopter seeds that maple trees drop had learned how to flap their wings.

The Walkman still worked, so I plugged the headphones in to try and take my mind off how desperate things were and the implication of all these strange creatures. But the distraction did nothing for my spirits except to drag them further down. I couldn’t remember music ever affecting me so strongly, especially when I didn’t pay much attention to the lyrics. After just a couple of songs, I couldn’t take it anymore and turned it off.

As sometimes happened, I forgot to remove the headphones. They did such a great job of blocking out noise that I didn’t hear two pairs of approaching wings and started, nearly losing my footing, when they zipped past my head. Two animals were fluttering around the tree, the size of birds but with mammalian snouts instead of beaks and orange and black fur on their bodies. I couldn’t tell where the fur ended and the feathers on their wings began, if they even were feathers. They ignored me and soon went their own way, but fresh paranoia kept the headphones off afterward. For that, I probably owe them my life.

I was maybe two-thirds of the way up when I heard the branches below rustling and crackling. Swinging its way up toward me at impressive speed was the first large animal I’d seen, almost my size. I was slow to react because it took some time to make any sense of what I was looking at. It was whipping itself through the branches with four long limbs in the form of leathery tendrils, looking up at me with big round eyes mounted far apart on a swiveling head with prominent, sensitive-looking ears. Between its top two tendril arms and its head were two powerful jointed arms it kept folded as it climbed. The claws on the end gave me a good idea of what those were for.

It appeared to be built for two things: swinging through trees and catching any unlucky inhabitants of those trees. In retrospect, it was pretty cool. At the time, it was the bastard offspring of several horror franchises and a jacked sloth coming to decorate the tree with my insides.

I’d last all of half a second trying to use a multitool blade against that. All I could think of was the pepper spray. By the time I dug it out of my pocket and figured out that I had to twist the actuator for it to work, one of the tentacular arms was already curling around my foot and the branch I was standing on, almost poking through my shoe with some kind of retractable spines. I pointed the can downward and sprayed with abandon.

The animal (I would eventually settle on calling it “slothtopus” over “tentacle monkey”) reacted instantly, releasing its grip and backing down with a volley of hoots. It stopped a good distance below after I stopped spraying, its twitching eyes squinted almost shut, then swung around the other side of the tree and went quiet. After a few moments to recover, I heard it resume climbing, attempting a different approach. I jumped to another branch to keep it in sight and fired off another burst.

It recoiled again and swung off out of sight, deciding I wasn’t worth the trouble. I looked at the spray can in awe. It packed a punch for something so small; I didn’t even think I was in range for that second burst. Better use it sparingly. I then screamed every taunt I could think of after the fleeing Slothtopus well after it was out of earshot, sat down to catch my breath, and literally patted myself on the back for my first unequivocal victory. If only I’d saved a granola bar for this moment.

Higher up, the smaller and denser branches slowed my progress, and the more pronounced swaying of the trunk reminded me how far I had to fall. But finally I reached a window in the branches with a view.

Still nothing but treetops.

I couldn’t have told you why I kept climbing after that or what I expected to see. There was more than enough evidence for what you already know. All I can say is that any kind of hope is a powerful motivator, even a false one. That inarticulate hope pushed me as close to the top as I could get.

The view showed me only that the land sloped gradually downward to my right, the direction of the sun, and that rain clouds were moving in. There was nothing else to see, no landmarks, and still no radio signals. I still clung to the swaying pinnacle, squinting in every direction for a sign of anything besides more forest, until the first raindrops forced me back down.

Next:
4. Dear The Monster That Gets Me,

Previous:
2.4. Liftoff