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by MPB
Rated: 18+ · Critique · Entertainment · #1366175
By now you should know what to expect
Two Hundred Fifty Nine
September 2, 1997
1210 hrs


Recap: Ian has lunch at school and chats with a friend. Accosted by another student, he becomes nearly violent and frightens the kid off. But it doesn’t go unwitnessed.

         “I didn’t notice the text kept shifting left and right until I really started to look at it. I’m not sure if that means it made its point in a subtle way or I’m just so used to weird crap that I don’t even pay attention anymore.”
         “It follows the pattern of starting off otherwise normal chapters with something strange, as if he’s not really comfortable writing the mundane aspects of the story. This is basically Ian having lunch and getting into an argument. It doesn’t need obtuse literary tricks. It doesn’t need to be obscure, it needs to be clear.”
         “But if it was people would think he had died and some other author was now writing it.”
         “What you have is a stream of consciousness chapter with some dialogue thrown in to break it up a bit and some arguing toward the end to give it some tension. It really only moves the plot forward in the last few pages, when Ian starts to wig out.”
         “We finally get to see some friends for him, which makes him a little less weird. I can’t tell if changing the venue to the school is going to make everything different or not. I mean, they’re back in school but we’ve spent most of the schoolday hours in other plots. So what’s the point, except that it’s the middle of September and you’d have to explain why they aren’t in school.”
         “At least he gave Jacob that vacation in 1997, or else you’d have two sets of work-related plotlines.”
         “Yeah, and one missing the serial killer tension, so it’d be twice as boring. We’d have a whole chapter devoted to a quarterly financial report. Like a William Gaddis novel, only without the whole ‘commenting on society’ aspect. It’d just be dull.”
         “It does pick up a bit when the other boy comes in to taunt Ian. And Ian really does seem like the type you’d pick on.”
         “He also seems like the type who would just sit there and take it, which is why it’s surprising that he starts mouthing off to the other guy.”

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         “Oh, hey, Koplan, didn’t see you there . . .” came the words, the type of false friendliness that was merely a feint, meant to lure him in. It never worked but they tried it anyway.
         “It’s okay,” he muttered, not turning around but not compressing himself either. Don’t make eye contact. Wasn’t that the rule? There had to be other rules. A parting crowd, the way that wind whistled over a still lake, creating its own patterns. When he slept he could smell air that was far clearer than anything he knew. Stars that didn’t twinkle but became gems that were bleeding through.
         “No, hey, it’s not all right,” he said, and Ian couldn’t remember his name at all. It wasn’t important, maybe they had never spoken before. Too many people knew who he was even though he had no idea why. Because it was convenient, because he was a target and you always studied your prey before finally moving in. The two of them had fought this battle before, in a thousand ways, over a thousand years. He was leaning on the table now, both forearms down, the stink of his confidence so close. He was starting to shave apparently, all those tiny black dots, entropy eating him, the first sign of aging. There was a chain under his shirt that kept clanking against itself every time he tried to talk. “Guy like you, you shouldn’t let people walk all over you like that. You have to speak up for yourself.” People were laughing behind him, maybe at another joke, at the obviousness of it all. He could write the script for this himself and dictate how it was all going to go. Do you want me to hit you now, merely to switch it up, or must we follow this through. Red lines, mouths full of teeth, a tear appearing in the air, ragged edges flapping. It was when you closed your eyes that you saw the truest sights, because the brain had nothing left to distract you.
         “I think I’m doing all right,” and everything was peripheral vision, trying to disentangle. Sometimes if you made it hard they would get bored and amble away to a better target, but sometimes it backfired and made them try all the more. Ian suspected it was going to be the latter in this case, if only because of the audience. The whole room was buzzing, attuned to this, even if they didn’t realize it. Flowers bent toward the sun, knowing its force even behind a cloud. Gravity pinwheeled, drew them in, like a child’s wishing well. The penny going down, because it had to. Conflict swirled, it was a break from the routine. Tables pushed aside, space cleared for the incoming war. In the center everyone got a better view but nobody could decide where the center might be. “How was your summer?” he attempted, trying to redirect. He was no good at this, his mind was too straightforward, and you needed absurdity to make it through. Pete would have defused this in moments but he was talking to a person Ian couldn’t focus on properly and thus had no idea.
         “Not as good as yours, I bet,” he said, nonsensically and people snickered all around. Nobody was paying attention, it was merely background radiation, being surrounded by people who told you something was funny so you assumed it had to be funny. Otherwise, why would everyone be laughing? The joke was always so clear. His one arm was twitching, like he was going to hit Ian, or shake his hand. Some times they did that, just to catch you off-guard and make you look like a jerk in your refusal. Ian had no time for politeness. The clock still hadn’t moved. Minutes were slithering into his head and taking root, not wanting to come out. “How’s your sister these days, Koplan?” Don’t you do this, don’t you let this expand. “She’s in college now, right?”
         “Yeah,” was all he said. He could shape his lunch into a weapon and it would still only be food. It was the dose that made the poison.
         “That’s too bad,” with the sly frown. “I liked seeing her around here, she was pretty hot, you know what I mean?” He nudged Ian then, and came so very close. It does down. “I imagine she’s still pretty hot, hm? Probably more now that she’s a college girl.” So close, his breath streaked with a kind of heat, the outside brought in. All the bad moments contrived. “You know all about that, a stud like yourself. Don’t you now?”
         “Maybe.” It was more honest than he felt. The pivoting, tiny dance.
         “She’s got that boyfriend still, hm?” He was prodding at Ian, searching for the weak spots. He could sense it and Ian just had to hold out long enough. It was going to be that kind of game, this war of attrition. Already he could feel the crowd growing restless, starting to drift apart, attentions fraying at the edges. It was so hard to keep it together, to maintain the mass moving in the same direction. Everyone had their own ideas. But all Ian had were lines scratched in the dirt, spelling out words that he didn’t know. A warning, a gamble. Grooves cut into a sky made of glass, dark on dark. It’s coming down, it has to go down. “I think I saw them together.” He frowned, so elegantly brutal. “That’s a real pity.” You don’t know anything.
         “Are we going somewhere with this?” Ian asked, trying to find that subtle tone somewhere between exasperated and bored.
         “We’re just chatting,” the guy said, his voice low. Maybe someone was trying to tell him to stop finally, that the joke had gone far enough. But there was no notion of that in this place. Ian had seen a boy get hit in the face until his teeth were littering the floor, blood and bone strewn all over the concrete. It had taken only seconds and even then the sudden act of violence took place in the odd hallway vacuum, people stepping around the onslaught. You don’t start caring until the blood begins to hit you. The tiny spray, caught in idle droplets. It wouldn’t end here like that. He had so much patience. So much damn patience. “You know, talk. You know what that is, right? You know how to do it? You and me, chatting.”
         “We’re not talking,” Ian said, his voice taut. The crowd was breathing, he could feel the pale stink of its air washing over him. Inhale and exhale, trying to make him fit the rhythms. It was so hideously simple, the way they eventually got you. Just a single step and you had no choice but to fall right in line. Just following the marked lines, because it was easier, because everyone else was doing it. “You are saying things to me in order to provoke me and I’m trying to be polite to not give you the satisfaction.” He was boring a hole in his plate with his fork, twisting, casting the tiny pieces aside. “That’s what we’re doing. It’s about as far from talking as you can get. But this is also high school and about as close as we’re going to get to it.” The words were burrowing into him, turning his brain into a honeycomb. He wasn’t normally this honest, but it felt right. It meant nothing and it felt right.
         The guy wasn’t taken aback by this at all. At least he seemed not to be. People probably tried to be smartasses to him all the time. Bullets as light rain, splashing and deflecting. It took a lot to finally make some kind of dent. All Ian had were weapons made of foam. Parts of his skin seemed to ripple, but he wasn’t looking at Ian anymore, just at his knuckles. All he did was sit there. His position never changed. He laughed a little bit, a small vicious sound. You need to get up and walk away. But that wasn’t what he heard. It goes down. Echoes refracted, the sense that he had no chance but this, but here. The strange, single straw, already fraying. They didn’t need to come to terms, because they never would.
------------------------------------------------------------

         “He’s been running at a slow burn for the last day or so, story-wise. But as we’ve noted before, this is nothing new for the story, unless the point is to show us that he’s not the most popular kid in school. But we could have figured that out on our own.”
         “Exactly. We saw him flip out on the other boy not too long ago and every chapter featuring him generally makes it a point to note how he’s been feeling empty inside, lashing out and becoming a bit on-edge. Given how his thoughts are churning, what’s amazing is not that he goes after the guy, but that he doesn’t do more damage. He’s Ian Koplan, Boy on the Edge, and the story is doing its best to hammer that point home with the bluntest instrument possible.”
         “The taunts are vicious, especially when it turns to Ranos and the mockery about him falling out the window. The other guy clearly doesn’t think Ian is going to do anything about any of this, or else he wouldn’t have gone as far.”
         “Unless he’s just stupid. Maybe he’s a football player.”
         “Maybe. Being that he outright accuses the Koplans of shoving Ranos out the window, he’d be an idiot not to expect Ian to haul off and hit him. So either he knows from experience Ian won’t react, or he figures he can take the kid. Perhaps it’s a little of both.”
         “The way Ranos’ thoughts are interwoven is kind of subtle though. I’m still not sure what the hell any of it means. Are they linked, are they not linked, is it just residual crap? Given that he didn’t notice when Ranos stopped being dead, or at least extremely comatose, the link must have been severed. But it obviously wasn’t the same as with Tristian.”
         “Oh, definitely not. And I don’t think we’re going to get any kind of explanation until Ranos returns, which I’m sure is inevitable. I can’t be spending much more time in his head.”
         “Right. You can only drag that out for so long, although he’s done a good job of stretching it beyond all reasonable belief so far. You’ve been there for like what, sixty chapters? That’s dedication.”
         “One tries one’s best.”
         “Ian does get nicely intense. Let’s see a bit of our young player doing his best Brando. Bring it, kid!”

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         “You’ve never seen someone fall,” Ian said and when did he start standing? Had he been like this the whole time. It’s surgical, the way you attack. He was so fast, warped in wobbly gelatin, the space between not a space but an idea, pulled together and compressed. Voices shifting, running at a different speed. The guy was staring at him, trying to follow his blur. “You have no idea what it’s like and you’re trying to tell me.” His voice wasn’t a roar but a hovering set of bricks, held up by a fraying rope, seconds from just falling. But you never blamed the bricks for the destruction they made, because it wasn’t their fault. They were only doing what gravity told them to do. Things go down, it goes down. Or. Or. His arm was stuffed with rods, hand wrapped like a clamp around the back of the boy’s neck, gone taut, all the muscles were working overtime, Ian could feel them shifting and fighting against his palm and nobody was moving. It goes. Or.
         “But you don’t know,” Ian said, so quietly. That was the hardest part. Even the slightest whisper carried too much weight. “You’ve never seen it,” and his hand tensed, forcing the boy to gasp, his head moving a little closer to the table. “You’ve never had to watch someone go away, have you? They just recede and you have to stand there and watch because there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.” Maybe he was speaking, maybe others were talking, it was so hard to tell in the silence. Arms flailing, trying to find purchase against the smoothness but he was frictionless, falling through this day without any hopeo of slowing down. It would go by so fast and he’d never know. You barely have a chance to know before you hit. Ian felt his fingers squeeze a little tighter. “Because when they fall, there’s this moment when you think you can catch them, when you figure you can reach out and bring them back.” He could have laughed, if it was allowed. “Just pluck them right out of the air, but you can’t and so you have no choice but to just stand there and let it happen, no matter how much you want to stop it.” He was so calm, talking like this, his heart had gone dry, as if covered in sand. “And they turn over and they look at you, the whole way down they stare at you, asking you why you couldn’t stop this, just asking and begging you.” He pressed his face a little closer, even as the boy’s nose came near to brushing against the table. There was no shouting present, there was no need. All the wind had stopped inside. Down the dunes and stretched. “But you can’t look away, because you know that they’re staring at you and you don’t want their last sight to be you turning your back on them, turning away.” He could ram a needle into his ear and destroy his brain, eliminate all future problems. If only he had a needle. If only someone had a brain. “But you know what the worst part is?” and maybe the boy was struggling and maybe he had gone completely still, waiting to hear the rest. His face had turned red, the edges of his eye sockets twitching from the struggle. “No matter what, you always see it coming, you see them wavering just on the edge and you can’t . . . you can’t touch them, because you’re afraid they’ll go right over. So you watch and hope they’ll take a step away. And they never do. And so you keep expecting it. And when it does happen . . .” he blinked, felt a hook somehow reach his center, “. . . you’re still surprised. No matter what.”
         His hand was cramping, everything hurt. It was signals via telegraph, messages relayed from another land. A place so far from here that distance didn’t apply. He was starting to turn, reaching for Ian. Like a touch might cure anything. It was so hard to go up when that direction no longer existed. “But you don’t know that,” Ian said, maybe sad. “You don’t know anything at all.” Twisting, the struggle. It goes down. “Not even enough to be glad it isn’t you.” A part of the arc always points away. It goes down.
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         “Ouch. Such naked pain. How does he stand it? At least one of his stalkers is present to watch it. I didn’t see that coming at all.”
         “Do they have names? I know one is always described with sandy hair and I can’t tell the other two apart.”
         “I never remember, I have a feeling they weren’t meant to be around this long and right now the plot is so stretched that the original point is probably lost. I can’t even remember what he’s told them and what he hasn’t. Didn’t they have a conversation in the diner already?”
         “I don’t think he told them everything. Which is why they’re still following him.”
         “Ah, well, that’s wonderful. Between that and the whole funeral plotline, Ian has the most story to shoulder of any of his family. But I’m not sure how well he’s doing it.”
         “The two plots are supposed to connect, and it appears the funeral is about to intersect with a couple other dangling threads as well, so it’s either going to be very awkward or very messy. Or maybe a little of both.”
         “Fortunately we won’t have to worry about it for three years, at the rate we’re going.”
         “Mm, probably not. Things are a bit glacial.”
         “They are and chapters like the next one don’t help matters. Ready for something completely different?”

Two Hundred Sixty
September 2, 1987
1220 hrs


Recap: A possible fight between Ranos and Belmodeus is told from the perspective of five different people who were present. None of the accounts, however, match. The incident appears to end with both Ranos and Belmodeus getting away and several people hurt, but it’s not decisive.

         “Oh my. This is certainly unusual.”
         “In a good way, though?”
         “I’m not really sure. One thing the story has always done, for better or for worse, is relentlessly experimented. Even if the experimenting doesn’t break any new ground, it’s not too often that you see so many tricks in the same place.”
         “But doesn’t it make the story feel disjointed? Like some kind of weird Frankenstein’s monster. Hardly any of these deserve to be in the same story but here they are all clustered together.”
         “Oh, certainly. It has the habit of making the chapters appear to exist as separate animals, a whole bunch of tiny short stories strung together. Any plot movement isn’t really apparent until you read a long string of them because of how stretched out everything is.”
         “Then you get something like this that appears to have no bearing on anything at all.”
         “Well, it does. Sort of. Ranos and Belmodeus are starting to attack each other again and I think he’s trying to find new ways to tell the same old thing. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen before, at the heart of it. Belmodeus tries to kill people and Ranos tries to stop him and chaos ensues. What’s different here is the telling of it.”
         “Yeah, none of these people could have possibly been in the same room, because none of their versions gibe. Which I imagine is the whole point. You have to pick who to believe. And frankly, you don’t have reason to believe any of these people.”
         “None of them are trustworthy. The one guy may have been robbing the house, the other gentleman seems honest but might be a fast-talker, the mom could be a little crazy, and the cop may be covering up that he almost shot a civilian. Only the old lady seems to be on the up and up, and she frankly rambles a lot.”
         “They all ramble a lot. It makes things twice as long as they should be, which we’ve complained about more times than I’d like to count. Or at least I’ve complained about it, you seem to have more patience for this type of thing.”
         “Oh, it drives me slightly mad as well but I’m trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. And frankly, after so many chapters consisting of the same pattern, of two people talking to each other before something happens at the end to move the plot along, I sort of welcome the detour after a while.”
         “But they just talk and talk and talk. Not just the old lady but as the stories get more complicated, they go on longer and longer to get it all in. In the end it’s just noise.”
         “It starts out so well, too, very concise but it does balloon astronomically by the end of it, for no good reason except that nobody has been told to shut up. It’s not even clear who they’re even telling this to. A newspaper, the police? Family members? Is it right after the event, years later? The story never says.”
         “Because the damn story is playing games with us again. It’s one thing to let people figure out what is going on but, geez, you have to give them something to work with. This is just chatter. I mean, there’s a certain tension to it, because with everyone taking different parts it creates a sense of pacing, especially because no one knows what the hell is going on and the only who does nobody talks to.”
         “It shows Ranos being proactive and actively trying to stop Belmodeus and nipping an attack in the bud. However, Belmodeus is also attacking in broad daylight, so either he’s become overconfident or he’s trying to draw Ranos out.”
         “It doesn’t go well either way. He cuts the kids up, which is just cold, man. Though at least one of those guys claims to have tangled with him and wasn’t shredded to bits in ten seconds, which I find hard to believe. You get close to him and you’re not Tristian or Ranos, he’s taking you to pieces, unless you have a very large gun and a head-start.”
         “What also makes things more obscure is that Ranos appears to be playing mindtricks with the police and everyone in the house. Which is his style, but makes the accounts even more unreliable. Nothing may be true, but then what really happened?”
         “And you know the story isn’t going to clarify it at any point, this is never going to be mentioned again. Can you say frustrating?”

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         “All these people were in my house, I didn’t know who they were or what they were doing there. I think they wanted to help me but I just don’t know, nothing made any sense. He told us, he backed us into the kitchen and said he was going to kill us. Just like that, he was so assured. The same way when Gary says that we’re going to buy a car, it was that same sure tone. He cut me, I think, I have, these scratches on my arm and I don’t know how they got there. They don’t hurt unless I look at them and I don’t know how they got there. He was so quick, he would touch you, or brush against you and . . . and you didn’t feel it. That’s how quick he was. And he wanted to kill us, he said it flat out, there was no hesitation. I asked him to spare the kids, to leave them alone, and he looked at me like I had said something ridiculous. Why would I go and do a thing like that, he said. His voice was all wrong, like he had learned how to speak secondhand, from what somebody told him. And he kept laughing, not a crazy laugh but, but he just found everything so humorous. The whole situation was just funny to him.
         “My daughter asked him what he was going to do. She was always the brave one, she was always asking the questions. I don’t know what made her do it. And he told her, he said to her exactly what he said to me. He was going to kill her and that it was probably going to hurt and then not hurt. I think she was scared a little by it, but he was so matter of fact that I’m not sure how much of it she actually understood. But she asked him why he was doing it. And I wanted to say, Samantha stop bothering him, leave him alone, I didn’t want her to provoke him, I wanted to survive as long as we could, until some kind of help arrived. But he didn’t seem to care, he didn’t seem to be in any kind of hurry at all. He had all the time in the world, with us. I guess I can see why. We weren’t any threats, it would take seconds to kill us. We were nothing to him. Like covering someone with a blanket, it would be that easy.
         “But he answered her question. The four of us, sitting in my kitchen before everyone burst in. My daughter asked him and he seemed to think about it, he looked at her and said, because it’s what I do. It’s the only thing that I’m good at. The way he said it, he sounded almost surprised to hear himself, like he was expecting to give another answer. And Samantha, she told him, well you could become good at something else. You could learn.
         “He appeared to consider this, for a little bit. And he said, eventually, he said, no, I don’t think so. I’m not sure if I know how. It didn’t sound like it bothered him, all it was, was a fact. The same way you’d say that the Earth was round or that . . . or that everyone eventually dies. He enjoyed being the way he was, just, just killing people. He never wanted to change because he never saw a need to change. I don’t understand how anyone can be that way, how someone like that can even exist. It just seems to go against everything that’s right with the world.
         “He wasn’t looking directly at us, he seemed to be thinking about something. My daughter asked him, and I tried to keep her quiet, what he was waiting for, why hadn’t he done it yet. She was so calm when she said it. It was just a question, that’s all it was. She was confused, all these things were going on and she didn’t know to react to it, how to process it. No kid does, I barely knew how, you never know how to handle these situations. Being a parent, I’m telling you, are you a parent? Are you? Because I’m telling you it’s the hardest thing in the world, it’s the most wonderful and the most frightening thing ever invented. You bring this person into the world and you’ve done something nobody else will ever do, this single small person would not have existed except for you, they’re just unique in the history of everything. And that’s so wonderful, to make someone, to raise them and when they become successful and happy, you can feel glad because you started it, you put them there. But the horrible part, the part that keeps me up late at night, is that if anything happens to them, anything terrible, it’s your fault. It’s all your fault. Because you made them and brought them in and if not for you, nothing would ever happen to them. Oh God. Nothing at all.
         “That’s what I was thinking about, when Samantha asked that question. And I was still thinking about it, when he said, now is as good a time as any, reached over and slit her throat.”
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         “That’s the mom, who may be losing her mind. That definitely sounds like Belmodeus though. He always was a bastard. That may be the most dramatic moment. That, or when the cop nearly shoots the guy in the bedroom, apparently because he let Belmodeus go.”
         “Everyone is clearly under a lot of stress.”
         “If you say so. All I see, other than those two moments are just a lot of running and shouting and talking and in the end nobody knows what the hell just happened. You can describe every chapter that way. This isn’t unique, it’s just packaged differently. We’re still in a whole heap of nowhere.”

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         “He was way ahead of me, but I didn’t go up right away. I hung back a little bit, for my own safety. I just tried to get close enough so I could listen. I could hear people downstairs, it seemed like they were arguing and I thought the police might be here. I wanted to tell them I was up here but I didn’t want to alert this guy that I was nearby, in case he went after me. He was talking, or shouting, but I don’t know who he was talking to. For the first time I wondered where the heck the guy who had come in with me had gone, if he had managed to sneak upstairs. I hadn’t seen him in a while, I hoped it wasn’t him. He hadn’t been much of a fighter and against this guy he was going to stand no chance at all. And I thought maybe if it was him, the two of us could take him down, if we did it together. That’s what this whole problem is from, everyone just trying to tackle it alone, without any sort of plan. He’s attacking us in our houses, when we’re alone, and I think if we were able to present a better front, this would all be over. There is always safety in numbers and he’s taking our whole town and dividing it up, picking us off one by one.
         “I was about to go when I heard this series of loud bangings, like someone punching through blocks of wood repeatedly. The man snarled something that I couldn’t make out and then I heard him say, clearer, what is this supposed to prove? He said, do you think it’s going to go any differently this time. My first thought was that he was talking to me, which is a ridiculous thought since he had no way of knowing I was behind him. But it stopped me from going any further, and I almost went back down. I panicked a little, I’ll admit. I don’t know what made me stay in the end. Someone needed to listen, I guess.
         “He was still asking, I could hear him. You know how this is going to go, he said. His voice kept shifting, I had the impression he was in a room and constantly turning around, looking for something. I would hear objects moving, more thuds, and the sound of his breathing, heavy and measured. You have this time, he said, if I let you. He was laughing a little and it was . . . like closing a door on a small bird. I know that doesn’t make any sense but at the time it did. He was still talking, saying, If I let you, but what about next time? Can you keep stopping it? Eventually you’re going to slip. He was definitely talking to someone but I don’t know who. I was trying to inch my way up the stairs, I was near the top. I could see down the hallway, but he must have been at the end of it, in one of the bedrooms. It was too close already, if he came back even though the hallway was long he’d be on me in a few seconds. But for some reason I didn’t want to let him out of my sight. It seemed important, to do that.
         “Just then, I heard the other voice. He was still talking when I heard it, so I’m not sure if I got the words right. I don’t think he was expecting it and up to that point I didn’t even think someone else was there. I figured he was talking to no one because frankly, if you’re going to go around killing people, even if you don’t act crazy, you probably aren’t all right in the head, if you get my meaning.
         “It was just a few words, what I thought I heard. He was still talking and I thought someone said, after you. But I’ve been thinking about it and it might have been, and what about you? I really don’t know. All I know is that right after I heard it there was this muffled bang and what sounded like shrapnel hitting the wall. Smoke started coming down the hallway, just thin wisps of it and I got up then. I ran to the bedroom, which was foolish because he could have been right there. He could have been waiting for me.
         “He wasn’t, but the room was a mess. I had to wave the smoke out of my face when I got there. He was on the other side of the room, covering his face with his hands. Glass was embedded in the wall and littering the bed. From what I could tell it looked like there was a television on a nightstand across the room that had exploded. It was sitting there with a giant hole in the screen and looking partially melted. The man was cursing and swearing, his arms and hands were covered in blood. You, he said. That’s all he kept saying. He wasn’t talking to me. You, you, you.
         “I could hear footsteps behind me now, people coming up the stairs. Nobody was talking but him. I was about to shout out, to tell them that we were down here, but something stopped me. I felt a tap on my shoulder, and he said, someone said, you may want to step back. Get out, it was telling me. All I did was step back.
         “The man was clawing at his own face, I think he might have gotten glass in his eyes and I could see streaks of blood where he had been cut. He was turning, trying to get his bearings. And the next part, this part doesn’t make any sense but I was there. I was there and watching and this is what I saw. The sheets on the bed suddenly, the ends lifted up and sort of . . . drifted from the bed. Up into the air and right toward him. He might have seen at the last second, he was leaning against a vanity table and it had a mirror. So if he cleared the glass from his eye, he probably had a second to notice. He certainly took a blink swipe at it. But it just engulfed him, it wrapped around him tightly, this weird kind of cocoon.
         “He didn’t fall, though. He kept standing and I could hear his muffled shouting through it. I didn’t know what the hell was going on, a voice was telling me to run but I was rooted. You know when you see something that you’ll never see again, no matter how long you live, and no matter how much danger you might be in, you can’t look away. All those people standing there on the beach as the giant tidal wave comes in? It was like that, I had no choice but to watch someone be smothered by a bedsheet.
         “It took me a while to realize that there was more smoke in the room, and another few seconds to realize it was fresh smoke, new. It was coming from the blanket, looking at it I saw flames starting to crawl all over the surface of it. He was yelling now but it was tight against him. He wasn’t getting out of it, though I don’t know what was holding it to him.
         “Then there was this flash and the entire sheet caught fire, all at once. It was completely wrapped in flames, and the room started filling up with darker smoke. It started to get hard to breathe, so I took a step back, not sure what else to do. And that’s when the officer nearly shot me.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

         “Yeah, that right there. That was interesting. The rest was all just static, man. Static and noise.”
         “But if the story didn’t try something like this at some point, would you think less of it, for not trying to stretch its own boundaries.”
         “Right now it’s so stretched that it’s bigger than a pair of maternity pants. There’s plenty of room but nothing is filling it, you know what I mean?”
         “Possibly. I give it a little credit for different perspectives, however inexpertly presented.”
         “Good for you, recognizing capital A art. Maybe tomorrow we can go start at a green square on the way and reflect on how it represents the emptiness in our lives. It’s deep, man.”
         “You don’t take disagreement very well, do you?”
         “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Two Hundred Sixty One
September 2, 1997
1250 hrs


Recap: Fearing that Wikol has been corrupted by the Shadow, Brown keeps thinking of ways to kill him, but fails to follow through on any of them. Wikol suspects that Brown is stalling for time and pilots the ship toward a black hole, ready to crash into it unless Brown chooses the next set of coordinates. Against his own wishes, Brown does.

         “I hesitate to point out that if the General was here none of this would be happening.”
         “That’s why he’s not here. Otherwise this story would be a lot shorter.”
         “Damn. Good thing I almost get to rescue him soon. Can we skip right to that?”
         “No. There’s some macrabre humor in the fact that the Commander can’t quite decide how to kill his own pilot.”
         “He must be getting soft though. I mean, this guy is a soldier, a big ol’ leader of men and it takes him nearly a whole chapter to decide how he’s going to kill him? Please. Just shoot him, problem solved.”
         “Part of the problem is that he can’t tell for sure how far gone Wikol is. The Shadow isn’t exactly known for telling the truth and that’s his only source so far. Wikol may just be cracking up under the strain of the extended mission-“
         ”-mirroring how the readers probably feel.”
         “But that’s not a good reason to kill him. At least not immediately. That has to be the only thing stopping him, as Wikol wouldn’t be able to defend himself that well otherwise. In normal circumstances Brown could easily take him.”
         “Which is why I wonder why this chapter takes so long to go absolutely nowhere.”
         “It’s supposed to be about the dance, I think. But Brown gets too clever for his own good when the situation really needs something more decisive. I agree, there were several points where I just wondered why he didn’t shoot the fellow and be done with it.”
         “He probably felt bad, let’s face it, right from the start Wikol has had ‘I’m not going to make it to the end of the story alive’ written all over him. He’s the Necessary Sacrifice to show how Serious things are getting and how high the stakes are, without having to mutilate any of the main characters.”
         “The story has done a good job of messing with everyone so far. Tristian has lost his memory, the General is missing, we’re handicapped, Ranos is traumatized. Wikol going crazy is just another in the long line of bad things that have happened. Let alone the steadily growing body count.”

---------------------------------------------------------------

         Wikol ran a hand over the tufts of his hair, his pointed ears. The remains of his food were dots now, lacking all pattern except what you derived from staring at it for too long. Like a constellation. “My head feels clearer lately,” Wikol said, pushing the plate away. “We’ve been out here for so long that I was starting to despair, I think, but I’ve gotten through it.” He folded his hands together, his eyes riveted to the dish, to the sequence only he beheld.
         “Gotten through what?” Brown asked. He stepped away from the wall, his posture relaxed, hands near his waist. His path took him around the far side of the table, away from Wikol. The ship was so quiet but his voice hardly seemed to register. Were they even moving anymore? He had forgotten to check earlier, trusting the pilot. But he wasn’t certain he could even do that anymore. “Wikol, you’re not committed to this, if the strain is getting to you, then I’ll go on alone, you don’t-“
         ”I need to see this through,” came the response, with a fervor Brown didn’t expect. He broke into a wide grin that seemed too large for his face. “What we’re doing here, what we’re trying to do, it’s going to affect everything, Commander. I can’t sit out for it, no matter what.” His fingers were interlaced, worrying at the skin. I could wait until you sleep and make a single small incision, you’d bleed to death without ever waking up. “I always thought the Universe was a random place, that there were no reasons for what happened, it just was, and you did your best to steer through it as best you could.” His eyes were hooded and hidden. “The General choose me for a reason, because he thought I could play an important part. He knew it. The two of us, we’re still enacting his plans, even if we don’t know what they are.”
         Brown couldn’t argue with any of this, but the fact that Wikol was making this argument worried him a great deal. “We’re not all essential,” he replied, doing his best to tease out which strands of Wikol’s mind still belonged to him. Insight was a door but here someone had kicked it in and broke off the hinges. It was too much revelation at once and all the lights from the stars couldn’t illuminate for Brown where the cracks were forming. The pilot’s face was pensive but there was a strange hyperactive energy to it lurking just under the skin, muscles gone wild, nerves stretching into new shapes, forging fresh connections, all perhaps directed by another force. The twitching of faultlines crashing together, tying themselves into one-sided knots, loops that had no beginning or end, a single continuous run, all the origins hidden. “We all have a part to play, but not all of us are playing a big part. It depends on the stakes, and the people involved.”
         “Don’t tell me he wouldn’t use innocents, Commander. We both know that’s not true.” The coldness of his voice wasn’t right, it belonged outside, in other zones. “I’m as integral as you are, I realize that now. And the stakes . . .” he pressed his fingers together, forcing the tips to turn pale, all blood fleeing. “They’ve never been bigger. You know that, he knew that. He’d sacrifice us all to finish this the way it has to be done. It’s what he does.” Brown kept looking for some signs of changes but it was the same pilot, the same meek alien. But his words, they weren’t right. The voice was proper but looser, the focus all gone grey. He pushed his plate away, letting it scrape across the tabletop. “And I’m done eating for now.” The thoughts went together and yet, didn’t. Bridges meeting at right angles, fighting to go up the down stairs. Webs of tenuous attraction, scaling up the sides they couldn’t see. Brown was on this ship alone and he was outnumbered.
         “You’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this,” Brown told him. Wikol stood up while he said this, a shrug his only response. I haven’t beat a man to death in a long time. Against the unyielding walls of the ship it wouldn’t take long at all. The problem was always getting the blood off later, and the sounds they made until you silenced them. The resounding, echoing thuds and the way they would eventually stop resisting, even before they were dead, just waiting for you to finish them off, in the moment when you least wanted to. Digging into a nagging pain only to find that it came from a shard of bone embedded in your hand.
         “Out here, there’s plenty of time to think,” Wikol replied. He took a half-circular path out of the room, moving near one of the viewports, his fingers brushing lightly against the surface of it. The stars didn’t move, or shine, or grin. Brown thought he felt the ship shiver slightly under his feet, but it could have been his imagination. Without a frame of reference they could be in eternal motion, or forever stagnation. Wikol moved away from the wall and into the corridor without checking to see if Brown would follow. “I felt like I was caught up in events, that I had no control over anything. Everything was happening to me and all I could do was let it happen.”
         “The General has that effect on people,” Brown commented coolly, hands in his pockets, trailing along casually. A single kick to break the spine and the rest would follow easily. He would never see it coming. “It’s hard to tell how much is random and how much is planned. He improvises well.”
         “That’s the key, though,” Wikol said, his voice jumping. Passing through narrowed hallways, encased in sheets of metal, the ship was buried in its own metal, the absences less than shadows and more a deeper form of evolution. Brown swore all the outlines were facing the wrong way, possessing too many eyes. “None of it is improvised, he has it planned down to the smallest instance. Every single thing we’ve done, every disaster that’s happened, it’s meant to bring us here, to this point. To this moment.” He pressed his back against the wall, hands flat and eyes looking at Brown from a sideways stare. All the angles were crammed into a fervor he couldn’t relay. Around them the ship hummed either in concordance, or mourning.
         “What moment is that?” He let the words slide out with a hiss, a dagger just touching skin. It was all in the hint, the ghost of future cuts.
         “I don’t know,” Wikol said and here in the corridor he sounded lost, the remnants of his voice collasping in on itself. A tatter of what he had been, unfurling as a warning, a signal of the decay. He kept staring at the wall, staring through and past it. He lies about everything, he’s trying to set us against each other. I have to be certain about this. Before I make any move, I have to know. All the myriad branches led back to the same room, and let you in via the same door. It was the contradictions that kept him awake, some nights. The impossibility of it all. “But for the first time I the idea that we’re controlling events, that we are steering all this in the direction it needs to go in. Us.” He spat the word out, gold tinged and heavy. “Not that strange man who was here before, not those robots, not anyone else in the entire Universe.” He banged his palm against the ship’s wall. “From here, we can determine how it goes. If it goes at all.” He laughed then, too gaily. Brown almost flinched at the sharpness of it.
         “How is it going to go, then?” Brown asked carefully.
         He looked at Brown suddenly, his face pinched as if nervous. “What, what was that?”
         “How will it go?” Brown crouched down in a practiced motion, balancing on the balls of his feet, tilting his head down so that the pilot couldn’t see his face. It was necessary to be a needle here, a razor designed to cut away the layers. “You seem pretty sure of our direction. Is the plan that obvious?” He tapped his fingers on the metal floor, the vibrations seeping right into the bone. “Because he never said a word to me of it, whatever he was doing. He had to, because if he told me, they’d come after us instead. The only reason we’re still alive is because of our ignorance.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

         “I never got a handle on Wikol as a character, even after all this time. He’s a pilot and he’s slowly unraveling over the course of the story but so what? Name three notable things about him. Other than the fact that he’s an alien, what else is interesting. He’s not here to be a person, but to serve a purpose.”
         “Hey, not all of us can be stars. He’s probably there to show how all this stuff that happens to our crew messes up everyone else. And it’s not just people. Wikol is from space, he’s not as ignorant as say, the Koplans, and yet he’s heading right toward a big freak out.”
         “Is the story about the Naxgul true though? About it teleporting all those organs out of that guy’s body? I’ve never seen them do that.”
         “As much as I hate to admit this, I have. I think the good Commander’s this part up, frankly, but I’ve seen them do it. The worst part is they really don’t know what organs are, they’re just like removing toys from a box. The fact that the person dies is kind of secondary.”
         “This is why we don’t invite them anywhere.”
         “The green one is okay, as long as you don’t try to talk to it. Which is fine, because it’ll talk to itself just fine. Do you buy Wikol’s gambit at the end here?”

---------------------------------------------------------------

         “Yes, yes,” Wikol said, turning away, rubbing his palms together. “You have a point, probably.” He shambled away a few paces, his voice buried and hidden. The floor shuddered, nearly forcing Brown to lose his balance. Wait, we’re adrift, aren’t we?
         Then suddenly he spun around and pointed at Brown. “Except that you’re lying,” the last word said with a barked laugh as the pilot raced down the corridor, his footsteps hardly making any noise. “You are,” he insisted, now far away.
         “What?” Brown whispered, feeling the ship jolt again, a strangely smooth rumble that went right through the base of his spine. This isn’t right. “Wikol, what did you do?” but his voice refused to carry.
         “Just tell me where to go,” came the returning shout, the man already out of sight. Running away, running toward the front of the ship, to the bridge and the central console. The ship bucked again, appeared to ripple. Brown felt his stomach sink out of time with the motion. Oh no.
         “What did you do?” he roared, taking off in a sprint. The bridge was closer than he realized and he nearly fell into it, crashing against the back of the command chair, bracing himself with both hands. “Wikol, tell me what you just-“ as he blinked, looked up and out.
         And stopped.
         The view had gone completely black.
         “It’s better than nothing,” the pilot said, in the opposite corner. He was standing there looking pleased, his body coiled and his face expansive. “I didn’t want to take them away but it was all I could think of to do.”
         “I don’t understand,” Brown said, as the ship jerked again, nearly forcing him to his knees. “What did you do, why is the ship . . .” he somehow timed the next bounce with his motions, so that it sent him staggering right into the console. Feverishly he ran his hands over the controls, trying to figure out the readouts. “You’ve set a course,” he said, finally, staring at the pilot. “Where are you . . .” The air was howling but Brown didn’t think that was possible. It was all in his head. Or, more exactly, in Wikol’s. And that was the problem.
         “Right toward nothing, that’s where we’re going,” Wikol said, running a hand over the controls gingerly, as if afraid to offend the ship.
         “Nothing, what does that . . .” his eyes widened as the realization came, the blankness merged into a term he could relate to. “You . . . you piloted us toward a . . .” the metal shrieked again, forcing him to the floor, even though he kept a grip on the console with one hand. “A black hole?” he asked, gritting his teeth as he tried to stand upright. “Are you mad, what the hell is wrong with you?” But he knew the answer before he even asked the question.
         “Near a black hole,” the pilot said, correcting Brown gently in the style of a patient instructor. The flailing about of the ship didn’t seem to concern him overly. “It was the only way, I’m afraid,” he said, almost sadly.
         “Pilot it out,” Brown shouted, lurching to his feet. He hit the controls, using what he knew to try and tear the craft out of its trajectory. Nothing responded, while the darkness overhead seemed to increase, or grow deeper. “Get us out of it, before we die, or I swear I’ll . . .”
         “It’s locked,” he said, almost singsong. “It’ll only respond to me. I locked it, just for you. To help you.”
         “I’m not kidding, Wikol,” Brown snarled and suddenly his pistol was in his hand, pointed at the man’s head. It was so easy. “Unlock the course or so help me I’ll splatter you all over the walls.” Even with the careening of the ship’s interior Brown managed to keep his weapon targeted properly, independent of the motion. You don’t understand, I have perfect aim. But the pilot only stared. “Do it, now,” he ordered. “Wikol!
         “I’m not afraid,” Wikol said, and he wasn’t talking to anyone in the room. “It won’t hurt, only for a second.” He snapped to focus, his breathing heavy and even. “But for you, what it’s like to regenerate in the middle of the hole? If you even can.” His smile was a rapier, lines drawn by children with unsteady hands. “Maybe they’ll rescue you, just before it happens. Because they need you.”
         Alarms were starting to sound. How close were they, before it was too late? He was hitting buttons but nothing seemed to be working. He staggered toward the pilot, laser still held before him, waiting for Wikol to flinch and finding that he wasn’t even blinking. “Don’t do this,” and he wanted it to not sound like a plea and it wasn’t working.
         “Then tell me,” the pilot said softly. His fingers were dancing over the surface of his own array. “Tell me where to go next, Commander.”
         “I told you, I don’t know . . .” but his heart was racing and out here there were no such things as lies anymore. No space for them to live. “Wikol, I’m serious about this, I’m telling you, don’t make me . . .”
         “You’re afraid,” he said, tenderly. “You don’t want to do this, because you know what will happen. But, don’t be.” He stepped toward Brown, ignoring the pistol. “It’s for your own good. The only way to force you, and force the ending. Otherwise, we’ll never go.”
         “Unlock it,” Brown said, wondering where his voice had gone. Already the gravity was failing, becoming variable. Outside it was a dark mouth with dark teeth, hiding a million crushing hands. “Please.”
         “I can only go where you tell me to,” Wikol whispered. “That’s how it’s always been.” He stared at the barrel of the weapon, his face gone placid. “No matter what, I’m not afraid, because I have nothing to lose. And you?” His eyes studied Brown all too carefully. “What about you?”
---------------------------------------------------------------

         “I don’t believe he’s clever enough to think of it, but at the same time it’s just crazy enough that he would go for it. I imagine he had a little mental push.”
         “Demerits for the Commander for not seeing that coming though. I mean, come on, you didn’t bother to check the course?”
         “He’s not a pilot.”
         “Then maybe the General has to start training people. Because Wikol plays him for a fool here.”
         “Wikol is also crazy, or at least makes the transition here, even though we’ve been heading this way for a long time now.”
         “Does it feel natural, though?”
         “Kind of. As I said we don’t know him that well so we don’t have much to go on. It needs a bit more resonance but chances are the next time we see him he’s going to have a large hole in his head.”
         “Yeah, did you see how pissed the Commander was at the end there? That’s comedy. I’m impressed he didn’t shoot him right there once the controls were unlocked.”
         “Maybe they aren’t. Or he has to check for failsafes before trying again. He probably only has one more shot at this.”
         “Which we won’t see for a while.”
         “See, you’re getting the hang of this.”

Two Hundred Sixty Two
September 2, 1997
1301 hrs


Recap: Julis and Renia begin to teach their one student, as Tristian appears to lean toward instructing as well. He asks Renia to move in to the house to stay with him, which she accepts.

         “Who doesn’t see any of this ending well?”
         “The chapters here with Tristian have the most focus, perhaps because he’s the main character or because one way or another, he’s doing the most to actively drive the plot. The story is basically moving when he moves, and acting in time with him, so that a lot of the action pivots on how close he is to culmination.”
         “I really don’t know where you’re getting all this from. It’s like I don’t even know you anymore.”
         “This may be the only part where the slow pace of the story works for it, because these events need time to develop and unfold. It’s just unfortunate there’s ninety chapters of tangential plot surrounding each of these segments.”
         “Like a big creamy cake hidden in a pile of dung. You could dig through to get it, but really, why would you want to? It’s back to doing a couple things at once though, between the school reopening, Julis’ sexual frustration reaching a boiling point, Tristian asking Renia to stay and Tristian also appearing to be acting against Tyrias, it’s weird how much is going on in these.”
         “Plus the ‘this all means more than one thing’ sequence where Tristian and Renia are talking as Julis continues to teach in the background.”
         “Remind me to thank Alan Moore for that little quirk some day. He sure uses that a lot when he has no other ideas.”
         “Thing is, where it once used to be the center of a chapter, now it’s just something he can just toss off in the middle as just another tool to tell the story. It’s gone from ‘look what I can do’ to ‘look what it does’. There’s a small difference.”
         “I just like to watch Tristian being a badass, which we don’t see too often. And not just badass but a romancer, too. He’s playing poor Renia like a fiddle and she’s just sucking it up.”

---------------------------------------------------------------

         Nearby Julis and the boy were sparring, Julis moving in easy exaggerated motions, showing him the principles of blocking and defending, how to predict, where to put the sword, how to deflect and keep the sharpness away, how to recover when it broke through. Compared to what he was following, Julis seemed hopelessly clumsy, every motion jagged and awkward and telegraphed, although still a fair distance better than the boy he was training. But Renia was no improvement, she was realizing now how ill-prepared she had been for any sort of fight. The man turned the structure of his violence into an elegant and escalating thing, always reaching toward faraway lights, clouds scraping against each other in a foolish slow dance. It made her sometimes forget she had watched him kill a man only days before. The room was suffused with the regular clack on clack that she knew too well.
         “Head instructor?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. “Did you just say what I thought you said?” He didn’t answer but continued to stare ahead. An amused twitch in the corner of his face told her more than she needed. “You’ve decided then,” she said, trying to conceal her grin and failing. “You’re going to stay and teach them, aren’t you?” For some reason she wanted to clutch his arm but instead made a fist and kept it still.
         It’s the neck, Julis was saying, resting the edge of the practice weapon against the boy’s skin, that you have to watch out for. One swipe and you go down. You’ll bleed too much and that will be the end. The boy watched intently, with new eyes.
         He only shrugged, a whisper of skin against cloth, the quiet gestures she couldn’t help but study. The man was considering both her words, and his own, the way one studied a single leaf to find all the routes of the stems, the inner veins. “It’s an idea, that’s all,” he said simply. His face was turned away from her but Renia could see his eyes following the two across the room, perhaps only their silhouttes on the back wall registering. Shadowed abstraction, weapons as extensions of the body, all blending into each other without bleeding. The kid swung too hard, skewering his own balance, and Julis took the advantage, knocking him none too lightly against the ribs. His expression was missing but something about his stance told her that her friend was enjoying this. It’s been a long time. “Tyrias would like me to do it, I think.” He had both hands in his pockets, his entire body seemingly folded, resting. She needed that calm, that reckless, effortless calm. The ability to remain perfectly still, and wait. Life was becoming too rapid, she was accelerating to the point where she could feel her skin screaming, clinging on only by the barest margin. “But I think he has his reasons.” The last was spoken with a murmur, a separate voice musing outloud.
         “What?” Renia asked. The problem is, Julis said, that you have to constantly think in two modes, attack and defense. You have to imagine what he would do to kill you, and what he would do to stop you from killing him, all at the same time, with every move. He swatted Leeral on the leg and parried the return strike. The kid was finding his muscles, trying to get his body to do what his mind could envision.
         “I may stop in now and then,” the man was saying. “Especially since you’ll be downstairs while I’m trying to live here,” he added with a wry smile. His face became serious again, the switch of night for day in just a blink. “But you really don’t need me, the two of you can handle this on your own. All I’d do is get in the way.”
         “Or make us look absolutely terrible,” Renia prodded, nudging him with her shoulder. “You’re what they need out there, not us. We’re still trying to figure it out and you . . . it’s part of you, it’s what you know.” It was hard to keep her eyes off the sword dangling inertly from his belt, his quiet and innocuous it appeared. He could ignite it now and cut her in half before she even had a chance to scream. The notion should have made her move away but it didn’t.
         What everyone doesn’t realize is that standing your ground isn’t brave. Darting blurs, Julis’ voice with a new kind of confidence, the weapon moving with an ease gone boneless, all structure reshaped. You have to keep moving, keep redrawing the battleground. Make them follow you.
         “You don’t need me,” the man said, although she was feeling that the exact opposite might be true. What, no, I don’t. The enormity of the emotion frightened her a little and she reeled back from it, taking perhaps a half step away from the man. If he noticed he didn’t comment, still lost in the awkwardly flowing dance in the room. The steps and the stumbles, falling and gathering. “Tyrias thinks you do, but why should people be able to do this as well as I do . . . this village doesn’t need defense.” He looked at her suddenly, probingly. The stare pinned her in place, in its way, a sunbeam grown too warm and gone solid. “When was the last time it was even attacked?”
         Renia found her arms waving slightly, hands acting on their own. “Not that long ago, I mean this house was attacked-“ Stay away from the corners, or else you’ll find yourself boxed in. Rigid clacks and staggered breathing. In for all the scuffling. You never want to be there, because then you become a desperate man and desperate people are the ones who make the most fatal mistakes. A shove and a stare and the two of them inches apart. Two pairs of weapons, reflected and echoed. But all the echoes were gone now, having disappeared down the well. They were just waiting for the water to settle so that it could be seen more clearly. Where all the missing seconds go. They go down, of course. They tumble down and leave.
         “The house isn’t the village,” he interrupted, in that way of his, that maddening way. He had known she would say that, but the man just wanted to hear her speak it outloud, to confirm his ideas. Because that was the next required step. This isn’t a game. But everything was, in the end it was all a matter of scale. “We’re on the edge out here, nearly in the wild.” It was his clipped way of talking sometimes, fitting the words together in the same fashion as one might construct a home, this bit going here and that bit going there. The child’s game of taking a perfectly good picture and carving it up, mixing up the pieces and trying to see if you could line them up again. He was trying to do that, but the picture was straightforward and clear. “They never even came close to the village, even after they killed the parents. They retreated, whoever they were.”
         “Bandits,” she whispered, but it was only a word and words explained nothing. Everything she wanted from him didn’t require him to speak at all. Don’t just defend, even though it’s tempting. Eventually one will get through, no matter how good you are. A hit, a hit, a hit. And you really aren’t very good.
         “They didn’t come into the village,” the man said, strangely insistent. “They’ve never come into the village, either because they aren’t interested or they think they won’t be able to fight all those people without taking too many losses.” He was calculating, the lines adding up in his head, Renia could watch him work it out and think maybe for a second that this was the man he used to be. The way the grass looks different when the wind blows in a different direction. Refracted light even though it was the same color. “You don’t need to be of my caliber. Nobody needs to be.” His hand brushed the sword momentarily, almost absently and she nearly expected him to say, And neither do I, but the words were never spoken. “But Tyrias wants me to teach you all anyway.” He was musing, murmuring, the sentences not designed for her to hear.
         “Not all of us,” Renia pointed out, not wanting to be left out of her own conversation. “Just the people who want to be taught. People like Leeral who have an interest. It will never be very many.”
         “And yet . . .” he muttered, letting the thought trail off. What he knew he didn’t say, but it was possible that the man had no conception of what he knew. His thoughts were becoming more complex, endless evolving flowers seen close up, and Renia was afraid that he might leave her behind, that she wouldn’t be able to follow. It was a mad thought, surely, she was certainly capable of keeping up with him, with who he was, but a part of her wanted to keep him simple. Hers, maybe? Jealous and irrational, but of what? Needles were churning in her chest but she didn’t know where it was coming from. Suddenly she wanted everyone out of the room so she could talk to him alone.
         You need to be aware of everything going on around you, even if you’re only fighting one person. What your options are and what they aren’t. Julis swiped at the kid’s leg, forcing him to dance back and block, his body overtwisting even as Julis slid his weapon underneath and jerked it back up, forcing Leeral to move with him, raising the sword high and tapping him roughly on the wrist with it, enough to make him wince and let go of it. Because things can change rapidly, especially when you’re not expecting it. Leeral just stared at the other man, perhaps wondering why he wasn’t being beaten.
         “That’s enough for now,” the man said, taking a step toward the center of the room. The sound of his voice filled the empty space effortlessly, a billowing, invisible cloud. His shadow stretched out on the floor toward them, the light causing the borders to be too well-defined, nearly solid. Julis and the kid separated, listening to him even though he wasn’t in charge. So he said. But Renia thought she saw a certain tension in Julis’ stance, a hesitation. “If we show him too much he’s not going to retain any of it.”
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         “The romance, such as it is, is walking a very fine line. Because it’s implying that with all those other options around, all Renia really wanted was a big strong man to come in and sweep her off of her feet. There’s really nothing wrong with Julis except he seems incapable of making the first move, whether it’s because he’s afraid to or because it never occurs to him until it’s too late.”
         “See, though, Renia is clearly interested in being a fighter and Tristian is six tons better than anybody else in the village, nobody has any problem admitting that. So he has that allure plus the whole man of mystery aspect plus, let’s face it, he’s damaged goods. Women dig a fixer-upper and he’s tough yet sensitive. Heck, if I wasn’t utterly asexual I’d go for his hunk of manhood myself.”
         “I’ll remind him of that next time we see him.”
         “He challengers her, too, which I don’t think Julis ever really did. It wasn’t until Tristian came that anyone even thought of bringing the school back and while Julis signed on right away, it wasn’t his idea. And he’s really only doing it to get closer to Renia.”
         “Which failed miserably.”
         “Right, that ship has sailed, so now we’re only waiting for the inevitable violence. But Tristian actively questions what’s going on. Renia is so used to accepting what Tyrias says because that’s how she was raised, he’s making her consider other motives.”
         “So it’s an utterly normal relationship.”
         “Well, except for the fact that she’s secretly being manipulated by the evil voice inside Tristian’s head that seems to have infiltrated his mind and is controlling his thoughts and actions more than anyone can guess . . . sure. Completely normal.”
         “It’s a risk though, because it could easily be construed as her just doing what everyone else tells her. She accepts Tyrias, but Tristian is a louder voice, so she starts listening to him instead, which doesn’t exactly go along with a woman who learned how to use a sword and for the most part has lived on her own.”
         “Tristian makes everyone swoon.”
         “I’m not sure that’s enough.”
         “He’s hitting all the right emotional buttons. Face it, the chick’s in love. It’s that early rush when the guy can do no wrong. Whether it will stay that way, especially as the voice gets more kill-happy, is anybody’s guess. But I think not.”
         “You’re awfully accepting of this.”
         “Call me a romantic. And yet when Julis explodes, as he’s going to eventually, it’s going to be glorious. This guy has ‘clock tower’ written all over him, in a feudal kind of way.”
         “I think he’s being manipulated too, though.”
         “Oh, definitely. Tristian wasn’t interested in Renia before, but the voice knew that Julis was. Now all of a sudden Tristian is making a play? He knows which of Julis’ buttons to push as well. This is going to be blood-soaked by the end. It’s all a matter of time. Can we go onto the next chapter now?”
         “I was going to point out the sly interplay between-“
         ”Who cares. Next!”

Two Hundred Sixty Three
September 2, 1997
1324 hrs


Recap: The General, still in the UnderEarth, recounts an encounter with whoever saved him from falling. On his way somewhere he appears to have a vision of a White Rider before reaching the portal. A Naxgul tries to stop him but Agent Two steps in to buy him time, eventually going against his orders and staying behind.

         Water drifts down without friction, catches the edge of a house and refuses to stay, instead finding a new path in an old direction and travelling along the sharpened corner into the gaping mouth of a bucket. Into the bucket and dodging the rusted insides, greeted by the flatness at the end and sliding toward a small hole that beckoned, allowing it to keep its shape pristine. Through the opening and seeping into the dirt below, going amongst the roots and the rubbish. Further down, into the packed and beyond. Down and down.
         Deeper and the question is, where does the bottom exist? How far does it all go before it comes to rest? In a space defined by the curve of an unseen hand, how do you find the lowest point? Where do all the droplets go?
         Surrounded by all the solidified segments of seconds, the General knew. When Time ran down, when it became dirty and weak and frayed, it flowed down in freefall and came to rest here, eventually. Through the skin of the underneath and collected in this place because someone needed to catch it and save it, perhaps in the hopes that it might one day become useful again.
         In the end, the General hadn’t made it very far at all.
         They had taken him, just as he had requested, into a journey suffused with distance. Sentences stretched between planets and stars, a question asked here was answered there as the constellations changed position, different stages of the stately dance. They took him into their zones, where the skies held nothing but the endless arrays of their mathematical precision, straight lines drawn between lives, every moment calculated cleanly and boiled down into elements defined only by the geometry of their purpose. Through hallways wrapped in architecture that mimicked the deconstruction of sound, gradually falling into suspended dust. Through places so soft that even the touch of his shadow left scars on the ground. Through temples that still vibrated with countless voices screaming for help, a vibration even they couldn’t still with their counterbalanced cancellations. Casting out for memory, even as he watched the events fall off the skin of the day like molten iron, heavy and thick and inexorably. To fall and find the bottom. It would reach there, in its time and in its way. A million hands outlined in soot, pressing against a wall that would never yield. Mouths writhing in the center of a solar flare, the heat neither soothing nor disintegrating. Dissidents stretched between worlds, a million miles of gossamer, so that every molecule passing through was felt but no sound was allowed to escape. He was leaving slices of his atoms in the wake of a billion vanished lives and none of them noticed.
         Keeping one step ahead was the key, the premise of constant motion. Barely lingering, because the eyes never stopped and there was no such thing as distance. A single step could take them and thus it was necessary to stay one step ahead. It had been his idea but he left the means of it to them. He sensed they were trying to impress him, taking him through worlds where all rotation had stopped, stars arranged in clusters of facets and glimmering as waypoints, markers and warnings. The thin edges serving as graves beyond conception, hollowed out centers stacked with bodies. He laid out his plans to them in these places, as they cycled through sterile chambers where creatures worked methodically to erase every name that ever was. Walls grown so high and so smooth that civilizations could erupt in its wake and never even know that they had boundaries. But there were no civilizations, just a single breath slowly exhaling and letting go. They debated him on fields of decomposing statues, where they had turned all blood to stone, and worse. They had no capacity to impress, this was simply the state of their existence. But the General had seen it all already and grown hardened to it, in the days when the wound was still fresh. Now it was only a tour through scabs, reminders that reflected the ugliness of those times without the resulting pain.
         Everywhere he was taken had their stink about it, the constant growling of their progeny, foul and relentless, shuffling and massive. Even in the worlds where all light had departed they could still see him, knew him by his shape, and shied away, knowing what he was. Everything ever said about him was true, he had spent his life making sure of it. The flyers overhead could smell him and know that he had passed through, retreating to the upper atmospheres with a scream. They would take all the gracefulness out of the Universe and make it rigid like they were, until all it could do was proceed. Even the dust formed perfect concentric circles, not a line out of place. No evolution, no adaptation, no change. That was how he got them to agree to it, in the end. The very thought of it unsettled them, once it had been properly explained. But they weren’t creative enough to alter the situation, they were only capable of making the connections between any two points, that was their great horrible gift, but it was the spaces that were necessary. And that was his gift. To find a way to draw a line between two points that weren’t in the same plane, to make that line both straight and curved. Their thoughts were skipped traces, pulsing and constant, but always resolutely linear. It took no ego for the General to state that was endlessly clever as they were, they were not him, and never could be.
         Thus the plans were agreed, under a red sky, in oceans slowly being converted to acid, in caverns embedded with the remains of a million lost limbs, where the stars collided in ponderous ballet. He would be the idea and they would be the means, at the proper moment. On his signal and only then. It was said, as the beasts tore each other apart in the background for lack of anything else to slaughter. Stated plainly, in the bays of their enormous ships, lined with their minions who lay in stasis, row upon row, until all sight was lost, the air thick with their violent dreams, enough to make the air congeal into a kind of plasma. They did not argue and he did not trust them but neither of them had any choice. To make a wrong move meant risking everything they knew and he knew. At this point it was not an outcome he would allow himself to accept.
         Still, it was with some surprise that he found himself flung back into the bottomed dimension, materializing again amongst skies dotted with pockets of corporeal Time, the silence dominating all senses. Having been here once they will not look for you here again, they told him, explaining their rationalizations. This was rarely done and suggested to him how desperately they wanted to be believed. The eyes will follow you and find the trail and it will take them back. The closed circle will offer them nothing. This was what he meant by only thinking in straight lines. He hadn’t believed it was possible for them to make less sense but events lately were beginning to redefine logic. They were lying anyway, or at least being deceitful. He had been returned because they wanted to buy time for themselves to undercover a part of his plan they could usurp and make their own. Because right now they were working toward his culmination. But he expected nothing less from them, for all their covert dodging they were extraordinarily obvious beings. Dangerous and brutal and vile, but also somehow predictable. It was comforting, in its way.
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         “Hey, why did you start with an excerpt?”
         “I figured I’d stave off your inevitable babbling.”
         “Come on, this is my token appearance. Can we at least deal with that first?”
         “Maybe later. The General has been comfortably occupying his own tiny novel for quite some time now, trapped in the UnderEarth.”
         “We’re seriously going to go through this? Fine. In all honesty, most of these sections give the impression that the author is just using them as a clearinghouse for every bizarre idea that comes to mind that he can’t use anywhere else.”
         “It does come across as more idea based than plot oriented, doesn’t it?”
         “I mean, so do the sections you appear in, but at least yours as a feeling that, long winded as it is, it’s actually heading somewhere. These are just marking time until the stuff happening outside lines up with whatever the General is trying to intersect with.”
         “All that really means is that the full impact of it isn’t apparent right away.”
         “But do we need to sit through a version of whatever weird dream he had the night before. I mean, okay, the bit above is clever and everything but . . . who cares? You can’t turn around and tell me that this is absolutely essential. This whole chapter can fall under that question. What does any of this have to do with anything?”
         “It highlights the elastic nature of the land he’s stuck in.”
         “That answers nothing. What does this have to do with the plot, for heavens’ sake.
         “The White Rider sequence is a far more egregious offender. It’s much longer and far more psychdelic.”
         “You mean drug induced. It’s an interesting sidetrip but after five thousand pages we don’t need any more side trips, we need the plot to move forward. Here, the General talks about the plot but the only person who moves the plot forward is me. Wonderful me.”
         “There’s that whole discussion of dreams, which the story has been touching on. The revelation that we don’t dream at least explains why the dreams I’ve been having are so odd.”
         “But that could be explained in just one line, not a zillion of them. Instead we get that expanded digression and then the whole ‘you are the copy’ nonsense and I have to say it’s just a breath of fresh air when I finally show up.”
         “No, I think it finally connects when the White Riders says that the General will save Tristian. It’s a nonlinear being but . . .”

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         “This friend means much to you.” His voice was faded, paper left out too long in the rain and sun. Perhaps he might vanish soon and go away with the rest. It had already been done, a very long time ago. The price, it had said. What had the alternative been, to agree to this? “And you don’t even think you can save him.” It was brushing its fingers against phantoms shoulders. Somewhere above and forward the first compressed shout went up, and the ambient lighting dimmed somewhat, became more detached.
         “I can,” came his quiet insistence. “I’m just not sure which parts I’ll be able to save, or what will be left. But I owe it to him to try, to retain even the tiniest piece.”
         The being was staring ahead and squinting, although it was difficult to tell with his eyes. They were going so slowly and the ground was falling away from them, the great looming sense constantly increasing. Coming to the edge of it all, with all the speed that friction allowed.
         “He is who, then? What sort of thing?” It was so curious, trying to cram in what it could in the time they had remaining. The General wasn’t even sure if this would work, but his plan so far had been half improvisation and half calculation. The trick was not letting on which part was which.
         “Just a man,” the General replied. Their voices were becoming lost, the distance becoming more and more apparent. He didn’t know if he’d get a chance to finish. It mattered to him, for some reason, even though he suspected this was just a figment, the last throes of a dying imagination, an reenactment meant to savor perhaps a last segment of calm. The being was watching him regardless, as if ready to clutch his words to take into the dark. So many marching in such a solitary fashion. Would he go this easily, if it came down? The horrible hollow steadiness of their passage. “He was caught up in all of this, he never asked for it. From the first, they took him without a choice. He’s seen blood and horror and desolation in all its forms. And he still reacts and fights, in the grip of a life he never expected. Because he thinks he can make things better.” They were so close now, it was high and forever and before them, creeping and sudden, the vast wound of it generating vibrations that went under the skin of it all.
         The being had pulled its cloak so tightly around itself that its bones nearly became prominent, edges and arcs scraping against the inevitable. Formerly rigid space was bending now, drawing them in with close claws. More voices now, high and scrambled and scattered. It was staring all around, as if trying to find just one friendly face to greet, before it all went away. Is this how it ended, or how it felt to end? In this place, nothing was certain.
         “Then he is worth saving,” was all the being said at first. Reenacting, going through the motions. He was stumbling and staggering forward, the General trying to follow but his strides had increased so much now. Time was falling in sparking clusters, crumpled and slow. It was dancing away from him, body twisted and gone flat, arms crossed in some measure of acceptance. The General thought they had stopped moving but it was growing larger overhead, set right against the wall of the world.
         “Even if you cannot save him,” the being said, the words a beautiful cough, “he is worth saving.” It glanced behind to where they had come from, grabbing one edge of its cloak as if to push itself along faster. Its boots made soft marks in the dirt and it was running and growing smaller and keeping pace. The air had an utter howl to it now, a groaning noise that existed everywhere, echoed in every footstep and fall, in every raindrop and brisk doomed electron.
         “I think I can,” the General said, not sure if he was shouting or not. The being was receding, a tide come between them, pulled away and forward at the same time. “I know I can.” For some reason it mattered to him greatly to convince this being that it was possible, that his defiance was not simply an end in itself. It stepped sideways, over itself, rippling in a curled dance as if seen underwater, spinning without moving, the edges of space around it lifting and becoming separate. The being had its mouth open, a perfect gaping hole, but it wasn’t screaming. But nor was it rapture. They had moved closer now and were on the edge of the hill. Around them voices kept interlocking, careening into an endless descent. “I just don’t know the extent, I need to know how much he’s been integrated.”
         It nodded and said nothing and he heard every word. You contest their will. The presence was filling the sky, all the limits of his perception. Even in the dark it was there, a hole carved into the side of this reality, chiseled by hands that were only seeking to explore, not realizing how thin the skin was at the edges. Until the final scrape broke through.
         They were only trying to carve a path into the mountains, they had told him, because the stories were so old and so imprinted that they had no choice but to repeat them. The foundation of the structure of the Universe was here, its first sigh and step. Its first moment of wonder and the first time it drew blood. Or maybe discover what existed beyond the finite container. The bodies were precipitating, orderly and precise and desperate. The General saw none of them but ghosthands touched him, a marker before moving on. Pulled right in, antibodies trapped in futile damage. Or perhaps they knew what they were doing the entire time. Said with a grin and a chuckle and the notion that maybe not every story was true. The only truth was that all stories ended, violently, passively, eventually.
         “Do you hear it?” the being asked, right up against him suddenly. It hands were the touch of a bright day, trying to retain a hold before sliding. It was going transparent, speaking so softly. The groaning was a mournful call, long and constant and hopeful. “Here I was when it burst through, deeply into us.” Its head was stretching, becoming malleable. “The sound of the engines of the Universe, dimensions crawling in the void. The noise they make, scraping against nothing.” It staggered, fell into him without making an impression and then pulled back to land on its knees. Around them the fellows were failing, without even a look backwards. “What we never understood, was if we were hearing the churning din as it was happening . . . or if it was merely the echo of the first collision, gradually fading out, and all motion had already stopped.” The portal was above and around them, stranding and surrounding all corners. All angles were bent toward it, somehow.
         “It hasn’t stopped,” the General said, not certain what made him speak. “It’s still going on.”
         The being blinked painfully, took its hand away from the Genreal and tried to stand. It was smiling, lipless and broad. “That is . . . you told me that. You convinced me and said that when there is stillness, there is decay and rot and stagnation.”
         “I never said that. We’ve never met.” So close, tearing him away in strips.
         “And that as long as we are moving, we are alive. In that movement, there exists hope.” It bowed its head, multiple images flaring, the air flushed with departure, one journey taken a thousand ways. “You told me that, in order to prepare me. You knew this was coming.”
         “The war was lost,” it told him, fingers tapping the wall and finding fractal patterns, “and so they were given a choice. To die together, or live apart forever.” A grin took on another meaning, baring teeth against the entropy. “They thrived on community, you know, that’s why they built the city.” Segmented eyes darkening, each facet seeing another year. “But they went, and scattered, into wherever the portal took them.”
         “But I didn’t. I wasn’t here,” the General screamed, shoving at the being even as it drifted back, moving as if on strings, all limbs gone boneless. It was flat and content and going. But no, the General wasn’t ready for this. I am not the copy. The empty spaces sizzled invisibly, warning and grabbing. I will not stand by. “If I had been here, none of this would have happened. I could have stopped it, but I wasn’t here!”
         “They chose, together, to never see each other again.” He found the necessary quantum brick, pulled it out sideways from the wall. “It’s a big Universe, even when you’re not trying to hide.” Observing the machinations of its velocities, he popped it into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully.
         “But I can stop what’s happening now, if only they’d let me. It doesn’t have to be a disaster again, no matter what they want.” Who was he speaking to? The world, the Universe, the body at large. Trying to get a single ear to listen, no matter how important. “Whatever their plan is, I have a better one.”
         “Because you are the copy.” Said with such fondness, despite his denials. “Because you are motion and quickness and strength.” Soft, soft. It was so far away, a dot gone distant, all its features still etched into his vision, the details like caverns and canyons, microcosmically expansive. Fingers and hands and arms, all gone away. The gentle breeze, metal gone to silk. “They are everything, and you would stop them.” Said so tenderly, it wasn’t a question.
         “Yes,” the General said.
         Eyes closed, it turned its face away, its expression stretching into the vastness. This was dying, how the crystal would finally wear down. It wavered, a single droplet striking the river. “You will save him,” was all it said at first, the low tones sinking. “Because they are many things, knowledge and thought and energy and space . . .” it laughed, held up a hand as if in delight, the skin gone translucent, revealing multijointed bones. “. . . but they are not infallible. We have . . . proven that, all too well.”
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         “Is that me in that flashback, or is that you?”
         “I don’t think it really matters. But the point here is that the LORDS can be overmanuevered. Which is what the General is trying to do.”
         “You’re very optimistic about all of this.”
         “I may have a soft spot for some of this, I’ll admit. And you do get an actual fight scene.”
         “Sure, as exciting as teleporting lasers into the General gets. I could have done that.”
         “We never see the Naxgul fight anyone, so you forget how formidable they can be. Everyone thinks they are big annoying birds.”
         “Please, you jest, look at how easily I dispersed him.”
         “You had the element of surprise and it didn’t last that long.”
         “You wound me, sir. Truly, you do. Let’s just see how awesome I am here. And . . . go!”

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         Everything shuddered into quiet. The portal was humming softly, a song to pass the days. The General could feel the weight receding, the ocean pulling back. His thoughts were locking together again, branching into possiblities and other actions.
         Somewhere out of his range of vision, a voice rasped, “Oh, shoot, looks like I hit the wrong target. I really do have to work on my aim.”
         “Should I be thanking you?” the General asked, not risking a motion just yet, assessing the situation. Things did not always get better when they changed.
         “Depends,” came the response. “Am I allowed to ask what the hell you’re doing here? Or is that still privileged information?” He hadn’t realized he had fallen but there was the man-shadow, lifting him up with little effort. “Don’t even answer that, I’m better off not knowing. Let’s just get to the next part of your no doubt brilliant plan before he puts himself back together.” His sight returned, the enfolded darkness the same as before. Except for one man, bringing his own strange form of brightness.
         “What did you do to him?” He asked too many questions, memories on top of memories until he felt near to bursting. But he had to know. It was in his nature. Everything became important to someone, eventually.
         “Dispersed him and then teleported all of his molecules into different dimensions,” Agent Two flashed a grin. His hands were still glowing, seemingly encased in melted glass. There was a scent present not unlike a broken candle. The expression went away, replaced by a seriousness for once not out of place. “It’ll only hold him for a few minutes. I’m surprised it even worked, in all honesty.” He was already walking away, footsteps gone rapid, his whole body trembling with the quickening energy the Agents often possessed. “I think he was the one who showed me how to do it, back in the day. Which if that’s not irony, then well . . .” he stopped, tilted his head and considered. “It’s something else, then, I guess. We don’t time for all this chatter, General.”
         “Are you surprised to find that I agree?” the General responded. The Agent was ahead, like he already knew the destination. He did, in a way, for their ultimate goal was victory. It was the getting there that kept becoming the hard part. The Naxgul’s scream still hovered in the air, woven into the background noise, hovering like a renegade cloud, bringing its own kind of weather. “Where is your brother?” Agent Two didn’t answer. The General tried again, starting to get the uneasy feeling that came when a variable cracked at the wrong angle. “He was supposed to be the one for this. Where is he?”
         “On a mission, on his own,” the Agent said finally, without turning around. “Come on, General, let’s get up here.” Closer to the portal the top of it now stretched out of sight, buried in a darkness so deep it might come from a kind of anti-sun. A palpable substance, poured without restraint. Coating them all, and obscuring what went on under its cover. You want this, he said to an entity not present, you want all the lights to go out, because you hate being seen.
         But the General had stopped, staring at the back of the Agent. A few more steps and he seemed to realize it, stopping gradually and standing still for a few seconds, his body silhoutted by the colors bleeding out from the portal, the interface changing as they drunkenly cycled through the spectrum.
         “He’s still in Ranos’ psyche,” Agent Two said, his voice taking on the clipped cadences of his brother. His words were blurred at the edges, funneled through a crooked canyon. It was this place. It had to be. “He’s in there deep, I don’t know how far.”
         “That wasn’t part of the plan,” the General said.
         “How hard was it to listen for a gravity well being channelled? It’s not like just anyone can do that, right?” He had turned to face the General, his hands sporadically stabbing at the air, crushing armies of dust motes with every swipe. All your little invisible victories. But his eyes were staring past, watching the backend of where they had come from intently. A twitch in his face counted down the dissolving seconds that remained. That was new as well, they rarely revealed so much in a gesture. “How did you know that was going to be his attack, though?”
         “Because,” the General said, moving forward again, “for beings who can move any object, even concepts, from one place to another, they are astoundingly predictable.”
         “And if he didn’t use that?”
         “Then I’d think of something else, I suppose.” He kept his eye on the Agent as he moved past, aware of the increasing incline. The edge of the dimension was nearly suffocating, the air was soaked with a sense of the end, a blunt finality. Even the graceful shadows, shaped like men, shaped like cloaks, seemed to throw themselves into the maw with desperation. It wasn’t an escape and it was the only option. “But I had a reason for asking your brother to do this. Why can’t any of you just listen to me for-“
         ”Because we’re not your minions, okay?” Agent Two snarled back, the contours of his body flaring and going out of focus. “You want to move us around like damn pieces on your board, you’d best be ready to accept that some of the pieces are going to move when you’re not looking.” He crossed his arms over his chest, suddenly jagged. “And some of us are playing our own game.”
         The General didn’t even react. “Are you going to trust me, or not?” was all he said, once a moment had gone by.
         The Agent’s expression broke somehow, the way a planet’s core could jackknife and be reflected in the surface turmoil. “I have no idea what they’ve done to him,” he said, his lips not moving in time with himself. “It’s been days and I don’t know.” His fist kept clenching and unclenching, finding its own strange rhythm. The anxiety in his voice was squeezed, too big for the body to contain. “There’s no way for me to tell. He could be dead.”
         “He’s not dead,” the General insisted.
         The Agent was staring out into the distance again. His face was set and still, the mask not in place but dropped. The General had seen them in all their forms, and moods, and whims but very rarely so open. “No,” the Agent said, his voice not at all like before, “he’s not.” It was the kind of faith that allowed protons to hug electrons, to draw them close without ever touching. Then the expression snapped back into place again and he stared at the General with his usual kind of dangerous glee. “But you want trust, buddy? Really? You’ve got their stink all over you.”
         “It’s under control,” the General assured him. They were nearly to the portal itself now. He didn’t know how much time he had before the Naxgul restructured itself, it would probably make itself invisible when it returned, and act swiftly, perhaps too decisively. Or, at worst, seal the portal and bring back the weapon.
         “Be very careful, General,” Agent Two said. The miasma churned behind them, the energies consisting of chaos burst open. “How many sides do you want in this mess?” He was rubbing his hands together, almost nervous. “Please. Remember. They corrupt everything they touch.”
         “I won’t give them the chance.”
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         “You do tend to change the cadence of the whole scene, as deus ex machina as you are. And I’m still not certain you were originally going to be heading toward this chapter. I have a feeling that you were supposed to make an appearance in my chapter and move on, but instead that plan got changed.”
         “Hey, nothing is ever set in stone. And you cut off the excerpt before my brilliant sacrifice for the good of all. I think I had a valiant tear in my eye before it went down. Yes, I think I did.”
         “As much as we took the opening to task for being too longwinded, this chapter in its own way could change the status quo yet again, with the General once again free and you in captivity. That’s if the story is daring enough to follow up on its own implications here. So far it’s been willing to shift things and put the characters in situations that are somewhat out of their element, but as things pile up and we start to see some resolutions, it’s a question of how far it will go.”
         “Would you say the heart of the story is more in the science-fictiony stuff though? Because he definitely seems to be trying harder here. As superfluous as the whole White Rider crap is, there’s some genuine feeling there, whereas with the ghost-hunters and the like I’m just waiting for it to be over. Maybe writing married relationships just isn’t his thing. But then why include them in the story at all?”
         “There’s something to be said for recognizing one’s limitations and actively pushing against them.”
         “Sure, if you’re any good at all. But when we’re reading about Jacob and Kerri arguing and I’m hoping we get back to the General’s Adventures in the Land of Nonsense, something isn’t quite right.”
         “Perhaps it’s personal preference. Or he’s more familiar with certain characters.”
         “After, what, ten years, we all better be old friends.”
         “The next one is more normal.”
         “Oh, I can hardly contain my joy.”

Two Hundred Sixty Four
September 2, 1987
1340 hrs


Recap: At school, all the kids are herded into the gym for lunch. Jamie and Kimberly briefly discuss this turn of events, during which Ian grabs Kimberly and drags his sister behind the stage. Ranos is there, for an unknown purpose.

         “At least the story is trying to at least extrapolate the implications of a serial killer rampaging around the neighborhood. Keeping all the kids inside for lunch seems like a rational thing to do in this case. Unfortunately he only goes halfway.”
         “That’s the problem with the scope of it. Let’s face it, he’s trying to be intimate and widescreen at the same time, trying to show the effect Belmodeus would have on both the town as a whole and as individuals and not really doing any justice to either. A body count like this and the town hasn’t gone into martial law or anything?”
         “There might be a curfew now. Except he keeps breaking into houses and slaughtering everyone anyway.”
         “There’s been some lip service to people bailing but not enough, really. You don’t get a feel for it, except when it tells you. This almost works here because it’s more show than tell, it’s never explicitly stated that the reason the kids are all in the gym is because a maniac is roaming about outside. The teachers seem scared, half the kids are missing, the atmosphere is kind of tense. Like I said, it almost works.”
         “You keep saying almost.”
         “Because it has to hedge its best and have Kimberly involved. She was at the council meeting so she can sort of explain what is going on, even if the explanation is imperfect.”
         “I thought you were going to complain that once again the chapter overstays its welcome, taking one idea and riffing on it until it becomes stale, then moving onto something else and repeating.”
         “Nah, this one actually feels tight compared to the others. Though every time Jamie shows up the little bells of doom keep playing in my head.”
         “No, she lives, barely. We saw her once already.”
         “Do you think he can write kids? We’ve had adult dialogue and child dialogue and teenager talk but does it all sound like different people.”
         “Well they all don’t talk like Ranos, for what it’s worth. Everyone tends to talk like they have a basic level of education. If you took all the narration out, could you tell who was who? Probably. He stays away from eighties and mid-nineties slang for the most part, which is good and bad.”
         “More toward the bad. For a tale set in the eighties, there’s never a real sense of time or place, is there? The one bit with the newspaper doesn’t count.”
         “Research was never his strong point. You can argue that the only point of the time difference is to maintain a distance between the two sections of the novel but it would be a nice touch. Just a hint that he’s trying. That would be nice.”
         “Did you expect to see Ranos appear?”
         “Frankly, given how weird the so-called normal chapters are becoming, it was a toss-off between him and Belmodeus. So, no, not really.”

--------------------------------------------------------------

         Ian heard her but it was just words. “I knew you were here,” he said to Ranos, only a few feet from the man.
         “So it seems,” the other man replied, appearing to pull back slightly, even though there was nowhere to go. His face avoided clarity somehow, a photograph gone out of focus so that the person in the picture was someone you knew only by association, or perhaps the idle contour of their shape. All sounds from outside had ceased, the gym had either emptied or the noise had stopped being important.
         Nobody spoke for a few moments, although Kimberly thought Ranos might have a question. He seemed uncomfortable for some reason, with the two of them just staring at him. The way it felt when the teacher would ask you something in class and you’d get it wrong, so now everyone was staring at you. And she’d explain it to all of them, but it really felt like she was just talking to you and telling you how stupid you were for not knowing it. So you sank down in your seat and wished you weren’t there. And for the rest of your life you’d know the answer to that question, even though nobody would probably ask you it again. Ranos looked like someone who was wrong and was waiting for everyone else to realize it, the way you’d brace yourself, like when you saw a fat kid running straight at you with nowhere to hide. That had happened to her friend Tammy one time and the bruise had been there for a whole week. It had looked so painful.
         Ian was going to speak again and Kimberly felt she had to stop that. “Ian, come on, he’s . . . he’s doing work and we’re interrupting him.” To get her brother would require moving closer. But everyone was rooted, unable to find the space for motion.
         “Work?” Ian asked, not taking his eyes off Ranos.
         “Yeah, work,” Kimberly said, trying to yank him back with only her words. He never listened to her, why would he? He barely listened to her parents. If he ever did anything they told him, it was only by accident. “Like Daddy does, you know, he leaves in the morning and comes back at night? Like that, Ian.” It made enough sense to be almost true. All adults worked, that’s what they did. It’s what you had to do when you grew up. Everyone knew that. Nobody could play forever.
         “Is that where you’ve been?” Ian still wasn’t moving. She had the sense that Ranos was watching both of them. In her ear she kept hearing footsteps shuffling through dry leaves. “You’ve been gone and we haven’t seen you.”
         “Yes, well,” and his voice was surprisingly low, not deep or soft but sunken, existing somewhere below the skin, “I’ve been away on . . .” the rustling, old papers drifting, “. . . business. Yes.” His head was tilted to the side and he was staring at her, with his eyes nowhere, barely in the room. “My job forced me to go away for a bit, I was out and had to leave, ah, town.” Much smoother now, the way a wet rope slid the tighter you tried to grab onto it.
         “Yeah, like when Daddy went away that time last year,” Kimberly dug in, trying to pull her brother without tearing him, disengaging him without making a mess. That was always the hardest part. “He had to pack and everything, and Mommy made a joke that he was finally going on vacation and he just looked at her. Don’t you remember that?” Of course he did, they were all there for it. At dinner, the same as ever. But you can be present without being there.
         “And he brought us back stuff, too,” Ian said excitedly, finally turning to face her, his shrouded features alight. But just as suddenly he went even closer to Ranos, near enough to touch his robes. Ranos was holding himself so straight, Kimberly thought he and her matched in a way. Different poles of the same field. “What did you bring us? What did you get us?”
         “Ah . . .” Ranos offered, taking one hand off the wall finally. “It, I’m afraid there were no . . .” he looked to her and neither of them said anything but it was enough, “stores where I was. No stores and no time. So, I’m, ah, I’m sorry.”
         Ian appeared to think about this. “Well, that’s okay,” he said. He had to look up to even try to meet Ranos’ gaze, as much as the man seemed to be avoiding it. “But you’re back now, right? You’re back to stay with us? I saw you this morning, when you were eating breakfast.”
         “I, yes . . .” there was a cardboard cutout of a tree right behind him and the branches seemed to be reaching for him. Kimberly wanted to warn him but he didn’t seem to ever need it. She thought he smiled, then. “I am . . . back, for the moment. Until I am done here. I believe it won’t be too much longer.” There was light and dark in the way he said it. The curtains keeping them in were just the edge of the world and he knew what lay beyond that.
         “Oh,” was all Ian said. She knew he was disappointed but she didn’t know why. “You don’t have to go,” he said. “You can always stay, after it’s over.”
         “After it’s over, you won’t need me to stay,” Ranos said, with a kindness she hadn’t expected. “You have a family and that . . . that is all you need. I would just be extra . . . unnecessary.”
         “You’ll go back to your family?” Ian asked. He was shifting from foot to foot.
         Ranos didn’t answer immediately and yet it was too quick. “Oh, yes,” he said, as distant as a cloud. “Eventually, yes. I have not seen them in a long time.” The way you could see right through a window and it could still be closed. “But for now there is still plenty of work here to be done.”
         “And then?”
         “Then I move on,” he said, with just enough gentle force. Apparently tired of standing, Ian sat down on the floor before Kimberly could stop him. But she had no desire to stop him. She was just going to stay near and take it all in. That made a strange kind of perfect sense. “Because my work will take me to other places. It is not in my nature to stay, or return, I’m afraid.” His voice was somehow sideways, not speaking directly to them.
         “But what do you do?” That wasn’t the right question and Kimberly was sure she had the proper one in her head. Ranos looked at her sharply and it was gone, covered in the fading warmth of the departing season. Just like that. “What’s your job?”
         “Ian, stop,” Kimberly finally warned, certain that wasn’t the question.
         “I’m not doing anything,” he said petulantly. “I’m just asking. And he hasn’t said.”
         “He doesn’t have to.”
         “It’s all right,” Ranos said softly, crouching down, his long body folding itself nearly in two to reach the boy. But it would take more folds than that to find the corners in your interverted space. “I do different things, depending on where I am, on what’s needed.” There was a looseness to him that wasn’t there before, an analytical pipe between the two of them that she couldn’t see into. For some reason she wanted to be a part of it, without being connected. The promixity unsettled her a little bit, gaps in the words that she knew, the way the rest of the moves of the dance came once you started the first steps, written in the muscles and the bones. “Here, there is someone . . . hurting people and I’m . . .” the intake of breath caused his shadow to inflate without infecting his body, “I’m going to stop him. That’s what I’m here to do.” His voice took up all the available space, spreading like spilled water.
--------------------------------------------------------------

         “What would be nice is a clue as to why he’s even there. Other than shamelessly grabbing for any nearby plot thread.”
         “The story is stepping outside itself. What was the original mandate of the tale?”
         “To be so big it throws the planet off its axis?”
         “Cute. No, to show the effects of the events that the usual characters undergo on people who have no idea what is even going on. So here we have Ranos doing what under normal circumstances is utterly proper but now it looks completely different because we’re seeing it through the kids’ eyes. So it’s coming back to what it’s originally supposed to do.”
         “Only it doesn’t do anything with it. He’s there and the kids are there and everyone leaves. Just putting the pieces out there for us doesn’t mean a damn thing if you don’t do anything about it. You know?”
         “Oh, you’re absolutely right. But it’s a baby step toward where it needs to be, before the story got caught up in all kinds of extraneous events. At the heart of it, it’s about people caught up in things they don’t understand, as personified by a stranger landing in your house for no reason at all. The other characters are all experiencing that, getting out of their depth. Tristian without his memory and being altered, the General wandering through landscapes beyond his conception, the Commander flailing about for a plan where none exist. All comfort zones have been removed. That’s what it’s about, when it’s working properly.”
         “And how often would you say that is?”
         “Very, very rarely. Here, we know Ranos is searching for Belmodeus, he probably suspects the man is casing the school, which is in character because he has no problem slaughtering kids. But the hows and whys are beyond us, we have no idea. Because they have no idea but at least we know the right questions to ask. They don’t. And so we’re stuck.”
         “Hey, that wasn’t bad. I almost think you like this.”
         “Hm. How much of this is left.”
         “Not much. Too much.”

Two Hundred Sixty Five
September 2, 1997
1402 hrs


Recap: Jacob and Kimberly discuss recent events, leading to Jacob eventually accepting that the funeral is going to happen, just as his wife comes back to the house.

         “This may be the most boring chapter so far. It’s falls back to what it does worst, two people standing there and talking, without anything shiny to distract us from all the tedium.”
         “Well it does show two people trying to talk around each other while simultaneously striving to pry as much information as possible.”
         “Sure, but do we need all the blah-blah-blah? Strip it down and that’s all you got and even the stream of consciousness stuff can’t really save any of it. Even nugget that might be vaguely interesting, like Kimberly’s strange dream, you sort of go after like a dying man sucking at dust in the hope that it might still contain water. It’s not much but in a desert, you’ll take any chance you have.”
         “The problem is that the story is so concerned with the feint that it forgets to make us care. That’s why you have a moment like this when it drops the mask and just allows everyone to speak directly to each other . . .”

----------------------------------------------------------------

         “How do you and Mom get past it?” she had turned to him, flipped over so that her eyes were staring right through him. Wide and clear and he wasn’t ready for that all. When his every word was a new kind of truth, accepted without question. In that second she would have believed that the sky was made of cheese. Maybe it was, in some other existence. When you were tall enough to reach up and see for yourself. “When you know you’re never going to agree, how do you manage?”
         Jacob held her gaze, or her gaze matched his, while he tried to come up with some kind of answer. But it was different now, if he were a younger man he could have borne the brunt of her question, from arrogance, or maybe because her expectations were lower, when just because was the fitting response to any occassion. But right now she wanted concrete sketches, and charts in all the finest detail, and equations that balanced and sang and hummed, all the workings reduced to lines and numbers and gears that could speak to you, and explain why they meshed. He couldn’t take that, and so he turned away.
         Stood up, still feeling her staring at him. The room was desaturated, immersed in her personal history. Her dresser, flush with the mundane aspects of this world, a hairbrush, some makeup, a pair of socks she hadn’t gotten around to folding. A compact disc from a band he’d never heard of. Trinkets from a museum trip years ago, when she had begged him to buy a rock crystal that she swore was in the shape of a flower. He could watch it for hours and never see the unveiling, because some things never became real, no matter how much you wanted them to. The rock, the day, all the unwound events. And I’m telling you, if you go, that he’ll remember this. Even if he never says, he’ll know. And he so wanted to hold the frame in pause, in case the regular cast might amble back on screen. But that was never going to happen, because they had left, and gone down. He’d gone down. And waiting for the last second save when the other person has already been shot in the face is just a waste of time. It’s only blood, we both have more where that came from. It was never true.
         “You . . . accept it,” he said, his eyes casting about for a mirror, so that he could look at her without seeing her directly. Because the gaze of an unshielded daughter could turn any man to stone. “You do your best to see the other person’s point of view, see where they’re coming from, even if you are never going to agree with it. Anything less is, ah, you’re not respecting your partner, when you don’t. You owe it to them, to try and see.” He shrugged, not sure if the gesture meant anything. But it was motion. He’d had enough of motion, miles of it today. Her voice, always drawing him back toward the center, even as his own impact threw him clear.
         “Then who’s right? Who’s at fault, then?” Jacob could see her, somehow, in the reflection of glass that wasn’t there anymore. She had shifted again, swinging her legs to dangle off the side of the bed, sitting up straight to regard him. Her hair was tangled slightly, from lying on it. He’ll do it anyway and what will that make you? Autumn leaves always had the colors in them, trapped in starving prisms. “If nobody is right and nobody is wrong, what are you supposed to do, Dad?”
         “I don’t know. Why do you keep expecting me to know?” Jacob said, somewhere between a shout and a hiss. The room quivered, nobody moving, not even a breath being passed, an image seen through a lake trying to find the center of its own stillness. Everything was aching in him, but it was a million tiny places, so that if you tried to pluck out each individual pinprick of pain, you’d have nothing more than a pile of disconnected pieces sitting around an abstract sculpture that was once in the shape of a man. He didn’t whirl to face her, to give her the full force of his parental power. He wasn’t sure he had any, it had been dwindling all along, the bits that Time chipped away. “You find a way to make it work, all right? If you want it badly enough then you figure out a way to make it work and if you can’t, then maybe you didn’t want it as much as you thought you did.” He was breathing heavily, the ghost of winded walks past. We will not let this disrupt us. “I don’t know any more than that. I can’t tell you any more than that.”
         Kimberly didn’t say anything, and he finally turned. She wasn’t crying, which he wasn’t sure if he expected or not. Her feet were up on the bed so that her knees were resting somewhere near her chin, her hands poised right on the top, partially blocking his view of her face. Still, he could tell that her eyes were looking nowhere near him. Maybe somewhere to her right.
         “What if you just accept it?” she asked him, small and guarded.
         “Accept?” Said while braced.
         “Yeah, just, just . . .” her fingers tapped her face, searching, “sort of push it off to the side, accept it as just a part of each other that you’re never going to understand and just, ah, keep going. Make it just this thing that nobody is really going to ever come to grips with. Can you do that? Is that even possible?”
         “Is that what you want to do?” Circling the round. All perspectives shifted. Perceptive and pierced.
         “I don’t know what else to do,” in the quiet admission. If it means anything you won’t dare to leave it as it stands.
         “I don’t think it’s possible,” he said, as cold as the absence of day. Her eyes, still incompletely hidden, snapped over to him then.
         “No?” An expulsion, and a request for a retraction.
         “No,” Jacob said, finding it not easier to breathe. He was scrambling to find the proper terms, but the language didn’t hold what he needed. Or maybe he just didn’t know the language that well. It was losing him, day by day. Words outstripping, and falling. Stopping, she had still followed him with nouns as shards, marking him as jagged and bloody. “Because you, you’re together and you’re sharing and you think that by . . . that in accepting it, that it’s in the same place as you. As the rest of you. But it’s not, it’s somewhere outside, in the hollow between and it’s . . . by staying there, it’s a reminder. It’s friction, and no matter how much you ignore it, you’re going to know it’s there.” His mouth was dry, but the air conditioning was off and the house had humidity again. “And knowing it’s there, you’ll argue. Maybe not about that particular thing, but about other stuff, to try and trade one kind of friction for another, or to keep the illusion that it’s working. You’ll keep accepting and you’ll keep arguing and-“
         ”That’s not accepting,” Kimberly said, with some of the fire he knew. “That’s not. It’s just . . . ignoring.”
         “Tell me what the difference is, then.” Not harsh, or stern, but because he was maybe honestly curious.
         “There has to be some things that you’re just never going to agree on,” she said, trying to trap him. This needed to be true, or else the whole house fell down. “Your way, you’re just focusing on a small piece and not getting past it.” Her legs were down and her hands were folded together, dangling between. From this angle she was small again. “But people are more than just one piece. And caring about someone means not just the parts you agree with. It’s all of them . . .” she looked away, biting her lip delicately. “It’s who they are.” This has to be true. It slid from his thoughts without friction. And I’m so sorry. It would strike her before he could stop it.
-----------------------------------------------------------------

         “Then it becomes more about a father and daughter dealing with life, which feels a bit more honest than everyone trying not to discuss why her boyfriend is missing a chunk of his memory and why his son wants to have a funeral for a man who never existed.”
         “See, that’s it. It gets too clever and you have to wade through all the artificial cleverness to get to the heart. And even then it’s trying to dodge you. Get it out of the way and just say what you mean, nobody is going to yell. Don’t be afraid, you want to say. Maybe even give a slightly manly hug.”
         “Please don’t.”
         “Aw, come here . . .”
         “It’s awfully downbeat though as well, with Jacob once again playing the jackass and telling his daughter like it is.”
         “In this case it’s not his fault, someone has to be the bearer of bad news and if poor Kimmie is going to think she can get back with her boyfriend and everything will be fine forever, she has another thing coming. The light, meanwhile, goes on for Jacob, and he starts to realize that closing the book on Ranos may not be a bad idea after all.”
         “He sort of talks himself into it, but I’m not sure the change of heart is totally natural.”
         “It kind of is, it was established really early on that Jacob tends to favor his daughter and he’s afraid of losing her anyway. And while he’s not so obvious as to actively sabotage her relationship with Rick, a push from her might be enough to convince him anyway.”
         “Still, once again he hedges his bets, leaving open the chance that he might stretch this out even further.”
         “As if we need more of that.”
         “It’s not outside the realm of possibility.”
         “It does deal with some other dangling threads though and once again sort of lays out the fractured family dynamic for us. Kerri is trying to keep it all together, Kimberly wants things to be sane again, Jacob wants them unsane but under his control and Ian is just doing whatever he wants. Four enter, only one can win!”
         “That should have been the tag for the whole story.”
         “Ah, too late now. And if it didn’t stretch it out so much I might care more. But after all this time I want someone to do something, I want to feel that I’m not marking time.”

Two Hundred Sixty Six
September 2, 1997
1416 hrs


Recap: Rick, leaving class, runs into Beth in the parking lot. They talk about recent events and he appears to convince her to stop talking to Kimberly. After she leaves, another boy meets him, perhaps one of the ones trailing Ian.

         “Oh, and speaking of. This has ‘space filler’ all over it. At least the dialogue last time achieved something resembling poignancy by the end of it, as much as the rest of the chapter bored me to tears. Here, it’s Rick, perhaps the least interesting regular character in the story. He’s Kimberly’s boyfriend and he’s lost part of his memory and that makes him kind of sad. That’s all we have. And that’s not enough.”
         “But it makes a nice parallel with Ian’s gradual loss of feeling.”
         “Is there any way I can put this plainer. I. Don’t. Care. This chapter has two things to recommend it and one happens at the beginning and one happens at the end. Everything in the middle is just one long yawn.”
         “The bizarre opening actually works for you. I thought it was being weird for the sake of weird.”
         “It is, but it shows the story not working on auto-pilot just for that part. It shows a willingness to mess with the page and mess with the rules of the game a little bit. Is it utterly incomprehensible? Oh, absolutely. I’ve seen graffetti tags that are more coherent and readable. But it’s fearless in its own way, making you question everything you know about the story. It’s pointless but interesting, which is more than I can say for Rick.”
         “It’s moving him into a gradually more sinister direction. He still thinks that Kimberly can help him with whatever happened and that she’s not for some reason, so he’s willing to do whatever it takes to force that. Including isolating her from her friends.”

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         “I’m trying to give him space,” she said, biting her lip, everything about her gone distant and projected. “I’m trying to be a good girlfriend and not be all clingy and ask him all the time what’s wrong if he doesn’t want to talk about it. I understand that. I’m trying to be patient and tell myself that he’ll open up in time, and we’ll move on.” She brushed some hair away from her cheek and pressed one palm against her eye. “But it’s like he’s closing up and I keep being afraid that if I let it go on like this for too long, it’s always going to be like this. That he’s going to think that I don’t care.”
         “Stop that,” Rick said, trying not to let his voice snap out into a bark. Even so, it caught her anyway, hitting her when she had nowhere to run. “He knows you give a damn, he always does. This crap with me and him, it’s just something we have to sort out. We’re doing it in our own ways.” He leaned back, feeling a spurt of what he used to be captured in the shadow of her own pinched beauty. “But he’ll be back, believe me. He knows it’ll take you about two seconds to replace him, so he won’t stay away for too long.”
         Beth tried to avoid blushing and partially failed. This time she did let her hair fall in front of her face, as if it was some kind of disguise. “Thanks,” she said, soft and quiet. The roar of departing cars was enough to drown them both out. People leaving and people coming in, the world reduced to a perfectly aligned jigsaw. The pieces fit any way you wanted and that’s what made the puzzle impossible. Because there was no way to know if you had the solution right. “I’m sorry,” she said, not looking directly at him. “I don’t want to go on about my problems when you and Kim . . .” she halted, or let the sentence die stillborn. Rick knew the ending anyway. When it’s so much worse with the two of you. He knew Todd and Beth would recover, he was certain of it. For his situation, he was becoming convinced that there was no recovery left, but only forced discovery. And it was all starting to interlock with an ease that frightened him.
         “Why?” he leaned back as well, so that it didn’t feel like it was challenging her. Even in the open air you could become closed in. “Are you not allowed to talk about your problems for some reason?”
         “No, no, that’s not it,” she said quickly, eyes going briefly wide. Maybe I met you in the wrong order. But that wasn’t him talking, that was the hole. The gaping pinprick of a wound. “It’s just that, you and Kim are fighting and with Todd, it’s just, we’re distant and, it’s not the same. I just don’t get him lately, but you . . . you’re both my friends, you know that, right? You know that?” Beth didn’t even wait for him to nod. It was either implied or it was irrelevant. “But you’re fighting and I don’t know when it’s going to stop, or it has stopped but you’re never going to get back-“ she halted, hand pressed up against her mouth in comic slow motion. The words were barely registering, it was nothing he hadn’t heard before, reflected and curved.
         “Rick, oh God, I didn’t . . .” whatever she was seeing in his face wasn’t really there, but placed by her own perceptions. Still, he refused to look at the nearest windshield, just in case. Don’t make this more than it is. What was it? It was just two friends in the parking lot, that was all. Nothing else. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I don’t want you to think that . . .” she stumbled, head down, trying to avoid what she assumed would be his wrath. “I hate this,” she finally said, her voice gone low. “I hate seeing everyone like this. It’s not that I think there’s no hope for you guys but . . .” Maybe her sentence ended in a question, he really had no way of telling. It was all being diminished by the hushed roar.
         “Beth, don’t worry about it, come on . . .” he said, trying to get her to look at him again.
         “I’m just making it worse.”
         “How?” he asked, pushing at her. She still wasn’t looking up but something in her stance suggested she was listening. Maybe he was just telling her what she wanted to hear. “By being our friend, by giving a damn . . . you know what,” he said, crossing the length between them and standing next to her, until they were nearly touching. The book was between them but he still didn’t see the title. Prying the Advantage From Their Cold, Dead Fingers. The best titles told you nothing about the words inside. “You could have just spent all your time chasing after Todd, nobody would fault you if you used all your energy working on your relationship. But . . . but, here you are. You’re here, with me, trying to make me feel better about the wreck of my relationship. You tried to talk to Kim, you’re talking to me even though I must be a babbling idiot at this point.” He might have said this before, the gaps were corrosions, the corrosions were all he had. Sometimes he was remembering dreams that he didn’t have yet, the storehouse of the subconscious broken into and leaking out. The image of a man being dissected by the world’s largest doorway. It hardly made any sense but that was life.
         “You’re not an idiot,” she said, shaking a little, not exactly looking at him.
         Somehow she was small next to him. Closer instead of running away. You do not have a girlfriend anymore. Who was this speaking? Who allowed thoughts like that to exist? “I know that, I know I’m not,” he said, all swaggering stillness. “But lately I’ve been sounding just like one.”
         “It’s hard,” she whispered. Was that another inch, brought to proper light. The book was flat against her leg, the only barrier. Her hair smelled of clear summer nights and the lights in the windows of distant houses, warm and rigid. “I thought I was ready for all kinds of changes and . . . I didn’t expect any of this.”
         “Nobody did.”
         “But I feel like I’m talking all the time,” there was a splash of sunlight on her cheek and it was making her transparent, “and nobody is listening to a damn thing I’m saying.” The way her shirt found the implications of her body.
         Suddenly her hand found his arm, a tentative coolness. He didn’t shiver and didn’t move away, but didn’t make eye contact either, because that might make it real. As if it wasn’t.
         “You’re the only one listening,” Beth said, after the chasm of silence closed. Her fingernails matched the color of her eyes, he knew that without staring. “Everyone I’m talking to, you’re the only one bothering to pay attention.”
         “Don’t thank me,” he said, somewhat hoarsely. The hand didn’t move away and it took every ounce of inertia he had to remain where he was. I don’t have her and. And what? “It’s nothing special, it’s . . .” rising with the foam he had to tear himself away with the only method he knew. “I saw Kim today. On campus.” How it came out he didn’t know how. But he needed the distance.
         Her hand came away and it was a relief. He said and he said and he said. The hole in his head was becoming the shape of multiple fingers. A kiss might plug the gap and oh. Oh no. Veering into a tree to slaughter the errant fly in your car. “Kim, but I thought you said . . .”
         “I just saw her,” he said, wondering where the tightness in his chest came from, wondering how breathless a man could get. “Across the way, over near the science building . . . you know that giant lawn they have. I was walking over there and she . . . she was on it.” Did it happen yet? The gears were yanked out of order. Todd had already told him how this was going to end, the two of them bathed in sickly streetlights. But that was tonight, and tonight wasn’t here. He had one hand in his pocket but that was hiding nothing. “Just walking and . . .”
         “Did she see you?” Too eager to finalize the ending. Realizing how close she was skirting what he already knew. Fumbling about for the reset button but it was dark and there were two buttons. And one button would let all the air out, so you had to be careful and you had to be sure. Beth was many wonderful things but she was not sure. Todd could tell him as much. “Did she say anything-“
         ”Nope,” he said, so flat, the broadside of the rear. He felt her breath hiss back, a physical reeling. “We never even came close to each other. I was halfway near and she went in the other direction. She went behind a building and I lost track of her.” He was describing someone else’s dream.
         “So she didn’t see you.” Circular and questioning.
         “Maybe.” He frowned, just as elusive. “I don’t think she did but . . . I saw her and I thought . . . she might have been looking in my direction.” Across the room even the gauze can’t hide the extent of your beacon. “But she didn’t run, she didn’t seem to be hurrying. All she did was leave. That’s all.” His hands were down, folded together. The car was warm and that wasn’t all. “I barely saw her, really.”
         “Dammit,” Beth bit off and spat out. She wasn’t frail and it still seemed odd, to hear it from her. “Why is she doing this, why . . .” she was almost shaking, vague and hopeless. “Ah, God, she . . . you deserve better than this, Rick,” with a thrust she stared at her, her eyes collaborating with the temperature. “You’re a great guy, I almost hope you don’t get back together, so she can see what she lost, I-“ Too soon, she fluttered. “I-I didn’t mean that, Jesus, Rick, I didn’t . . .”
         “It’s okay,” he said, possessed by a trembling serenity. “I know what you meant, and I appreciate it. Really.”
         “Good, thanks, I . . .” one hand curled into a fist. “Why does she have to be like this, and do this to you and everyone and . . . whatever. Whatever.” She snapped away, straight spirals. “I’m done with her. She’s my friend and I hate being like this but . . . but right now I don’t even want to talk to her.”
         Rick looked up, his face expressionless. Vaguely he wondered how far you had to go up in the sky before it stopped looking blue. Or if it was just a trick of the light, like so many other things. From the right angle you look just like. “She has her reasons, I think. They just aren’t very good ones.” His voice was a telegram from another void, passed on without postage.
         “I wish I knew,” Beth said, bitter in that older way people got when they think they’ve seen too much. But she had no idea. How much was too much when someone had gone and smudged the settings? His head constantly heard tires screeching off to a place that didn’t actually existing, fading into nowhere. She met his eyes with magnetic tension, the edges gone dark. “I feel like we’re all being so stupid over this. Are we?”
         We haven’t even come near to that point yet. “I don’t know,” Rick said, as honest an answer as he might ever give. “But we might all do with a little distance from each other, until we can sort out who should be mad at who.” It was a perfectly sensible thing to say and yet it made his spine try to curl around itself. How tight can the connections be if you. All the echoes had gone flat. A car roared past, as if enough speed could cause it to somehow pass through all solid objects in its path. It was so easy to think of life that way, that nothing could touch you if you just kept up the pace and stayed ahead. But the bits that don’t move will outrace you every time.
         “By each other you mean Kim, don’t you?” That little angle to her look, teasing and testing. Her tone gave no indication of whether she agreed with him or not. She might shove him in front of a car simply for speaking. Rick couldn’t know her the way he knew Kimberly, how he could fill in every sketch she made with a painting close to what she envisioned. Beth was colors and shapes searching for a portrait and he was still trying to decipher the style. “Is that what you’re saying?”
         “I’m not telling anyone what to do.” He said and this was true. Two people passing by high-fived each other for no apparent reason. We got him, they said, we got him and we know exactly where he is. In the brightness they could have been twins.
         “Good.” The edges of her mouth turned down primly.
         “We’re just all a little too close to this right now.” His hand was behind him, flat against the metal of the car, letting the heat seep deeply into his skin. A spark might set the bones alight, and he’d burn inside, reduced to just his internal outlines. Was that a brush of her, or merely a tip of the wind?
         “So stop talking to her.” Unclear, but he was so damn transparent.
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         “And isn’t he kind of making a play for his best friend’s girlfriend here. Every guy in this story stinks in some way. In fact, every girl isn’t so great either. Wow, except for Tristian I don’t want to know any of these people.”
         “They have flaws, that’s all.”
         “They do but Rick-boy here has some vaguely defined plan that after a zillion chapters still has no shape.”
         “That may be the point, it has no shape until the boys finally come along to give it one. He was flailing about because he was missing the key. They’ve got the key.”
         “But we spend an entire chapter of teenagers discussing how much their lives suck before we even get to the notion that there even is a key. That’s what I object to. Is he wronged or vengeful or vindictive or just desperate? Why are you doing this, Rick? Do you even know?”
         “He may not, but he may not know what else to do. It’s not the clearest of motivations, but he’s sort of fighting with thin air. What’s more important is that the various elements are coming together, we just don’t know how.”
         “We don’t know anything, it seems, and to make me keep turning the pages I really do need more than a ‘to be continued’ at the end of every chapter. At some point something has to resolve and when was the last resolution we saw? Four thousand pages ago. Instead we got more permutations and more plots. They keep telling us there’s a direction here but they’re following a compass that keeps spinning around. Sure you think you know where you’re going, but do you? Do you really?”
         “What if a direction were to appear?”
         “At this point I’m not even sure if the story would know what it was, if it came.”

Two Hundred Sixty Seven
September 2, 1987
1431 hrs


Recap: Ranos takes Kimberly out of class and they wander around the school, eventually going outside where she questions him about his family. Suddenly he darts away and Kimberly mistakenly follows him, seeing him briefly involved in a fight with someone she can’t see. He orders her to run away and forget she saw anything, and she does.

         “This, again, gets back to the mandate, probably more than any chapter thus far. The beginning with Ranos openly walking in and taking Kimberly away without anybody really objecting is disquieting. It’s matter of fact and unsettling because of that, because he could do that any time. In a world like this, Ranos could do whatever he wanted, but all he wants to do is leave. Meanwhile, Belmodeus can and will do whatever he wants, and thus is creating havok wherever he goes.”
         “The beginning works, amazingly enough, because it takes a normal tone without getting overheated and treats this all as perfectly natural, even as the event itself clearly isn’t.”

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         A tall man came in then, seeming a step behind his own shadow. The bottoms of his robes brushed against the floor with a whisper even the dust didn’t feel and whatever sound his boots made on the floor didn’t register as proper noise. It was the suggestion, a line drawn over and over again that might be a circle only if you let someone else explain it to you. He crossed the front of the room without hesitation and the kids barely looked up at his approach. Those that did, only watched without comment. Kimberly wasn’t sure what made her look up, a stiffening of the air maybe, or the way that papers can sometimes rustle at the passage of a weight that you’re not able to see. A bit of her stomach scissored when it did finally strike her. What is he doing here? Oh no. Oh no no.
         He never looked at her and yet Kimberly felt he knew where she was the entire time. His shadow, now long and clinging suddenly, fell over the teacher. She had been sitting at her desk reading the lesson out to the class in her high, slightly wavery voice, but when Ranos came she stopped and looked up at him. He was so tall, her eyes kept going up and up, scaling his heights with a lanquid lack of surprise. It looked like she expected to see him there the whole time. Does he work here? Is he another teacher? It made sense to her and it didn’t. Maybe he was just with us because he had nowhere to go and he had to work. But even as that caused some pieces to fit properly, the shape of the puzzle still wasn’t right.
         Her silence became the room’s silence, all the noise replaced by a low-key humming, the type you didn’t hear unless you were specifically listening for it. The rest of the room was still watching their workbooks, as if the lesson was still going on. Nobody paid Ranos any attention which should have struck her as odd but really didn’t. He stood and didn’t seem fixed to the room, an object stuck on at random, and easily peeled away.
         It took Kimberly a few seconds to realize that he was speaking to the teacher. What he was saying wasn’t clear, either because she was too far away or his voice was too low. The teacher was listening but had no reaction to whatever he was saying. Ranos was turned away slightly and she couldn’t see his face. A couple people passed by the classroom door and looked in but just kept walking, the clopclop of their footsteps fading out of echoes and falling into thudded deadnoise, erased. Kimberly blinked, suddenly unsure. I hope he’s not getting me in trouble for going behind the stage. That was Ian’s idea anyway.
         And then the teacher blinked at what Kimberly swore was the same time she did and stood up, hardly seeming intimidated by Ranos’ presence. It was weird, because her mother and father always seemed so nervous around him, like he wasn’t just another adult but someone that lurked on a level over adults. Maybe teachers were that level, although her parents had always been fine around her teachers. She kept turning it and turning it, even as her brain told her to stop.
         “Kimberly,” she said, all proper. Normally having her name called out in class made her warm, as if eyes were a summer day. But now it felt normal, the way it had to be. Ranos may have been staring in two directions at once, if that was possible. “They need to see you down in the office.”
         “Oh,” she said, leaping up from her chair and navigating to the front of the room. Ranos was just a sliver seen from the wrong angle. “What do they want?”
         “I don’t know,” the teacher said, not looking directly at her but perfectly natural. “They didn’t say.” As if Ranos wasn’t right there to explain further. But maybe he didn’t, maybe it wasn’t for her to know. Kimberly kept waiting for the class to start snickering, or the low chorus of oooohhhhsss to come out but everyone just kept working. It made her wonder for a second if she was even important enough to be noticed. But that was silly. Of course, she was. Right? Of course.
         “So the office will take you down to the office.” Did she hear that right? “You can go now, and finish your work later.” Her voice was so friendly, as if she was doing Kimberly a favor. Quite possibly she was. “He’ll go and take you.” All language breaking down, without reference or foundation. Words reduced to simple sounds and sounds finding another form. Liquids as solids, without the transition. Everything was true. And the burst poked through.
         “Okay,” was all Kimberly said. Ranos was already walking, his stride dividing the room by halves with every step. She nearly ran to catch up with him, reaching him just as he entered the hallway. Skidding a little, she caught one last glimpse of her classroom, the teacher smiling and sitting back down, telling the class to open their books, even though the books were already open. Someone shut the door behind her and the click it made was a capgun going off into a cushion. She was briefly afraid that she’d never be able to get back in, that she had made some kind of decision, like when she had to choose between chicken nuggets and a peanut butter sandwich at lunch, and how you couldn’t change your mind when it was over. All the doors in the hallway were closed, ricocheting dominos racing ahead of her, sealing off all other paths. She wondered where her brother was, and if they were going to his class next. I hope not. I see him all the time.
         They had gone some distance down the hallway when Kimberly felt it was safe to speak. “We’re not going to the office, are we?”
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         “At the same time it’s asking us to trust Ranos, even when he’s doing something that we’ve never seen him do before. It’s building on itself and trying to redefine the relationships between the characters.”
         “Right, it’s not until this chapter that we realize so late into the story that we don’t have a handle on how Kimberly and Ranos feel about each other. Everyone else you can kind of summarize except for her. Until here. She treats him normally, without Jacob’s actionhero fantasies and Kerri’s trust issues and Ian’s guardian angel motif. They can’t really relate to each other but they can talk.”
         “They can, but what does it all mean? The individual moments are nice, the bit where Kimberly makes him take her outside because she misses being outdoors is kind of wonderful, especially how she keeps acting like a little kid, spinning around and teasing him as they chat, making him call her by her name instead of ‘child’.”
         “He’s being honestly open, for the first time. That’s what the chapter means. Everyone else expects something from him, so he has to keep putting up a front even when he is being honest. He doesn’t want to scare Jacob and Kerri because he doesn’t want to be kicked out, so while he’s frank about the dangers, he pulls back a bit so that they aren’t completely scared, which winds up being a mistake. Kimberly treats him like a normal adult and so he’s open with her in a way we haven’t seen with anyone. For a man who communicates purely by thought and has few friends, to admit to a child not once, but twice, that he’s scared out of his mind by what’s going to happen is significant.”
         “Too bad he botches it a bit by having it go on for too long, as if he’s afraid that he won’t make his point and so he has to overstate. Why does Kimberly have to get upset about him travelling alone? So it can lead into a discussion about his family. Yes, he’s never talked about his family before, but why now? There’s a war going on and he’s sitting there chatting with an eight year old. No wonder Belmodeus nearly gets the upper hand. He earned it.”
         “He’s caught off-guard by the question, he’s lonely and frightened and tired and for a while he convinces himself the fight isn’t going on. He keeps switching from past to present tense when discussing his family, which Kimberly doesn’t notice, but it’s not clear if he’s remembering or wishing. His family life wasn’t so great either.”
         “The family discussion goes on for too long, I’ll agree, even if Kimberly did set it up in a previous chapter. Why he lets it go on for as long as it does is anyone’s guess. But even after all that we have this.”

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         The door back inside was slightly ajar, and Kimberly had to work her fingers into the crack in order to force it open. But you heard that he said that you had to. It didn’t go easily and the edges of it seemed bent, as if gripped by something briefly unyielding.
         Inside the school met her with silence and she had no choice but to answer in kind. The lunchroom opened up before her, an array of long tables all gone empty, clean and waiting. On the other side of the room the upper windows let the sunlight creep in, a view into a day that didn’t seem to exist anymore. She let the door groan shut behind her. What are you doing he said no matter what. “Where are you?” Kimberly whispered, working her way carefully down the grated metal stairs.
         From outside the room came a scream, piercing and high and just ragged enough that it didn’t sound like the first attempt.
Oh child, he said. She was walking forward into a world made of partially melted ice, frozen and receding. You’re not listening to what he said. She was running in the wrong direction, ahead when it should be behind, slightly behind the recursive clatter of further steps. Nobody was shouting, someone was screaming and she was running so fast, across the room even quicker than Kenny Tillip, who they said could cross the playground so rapidly that his shirt would tear. Maybe she had a name on her lips, maybe it was just choked.
         The hallway at the end led further into the school and she knew these things because she was a veteran of this place. Past the nurse’s office, but no one was inside. Past the principal’s office and she nearly swerved just then but the door was shut and the lights were off and nobody was around. The double doors ahead had a crack in a glass and it looked completely proper. You are doing what he didn’t say and you know what he. They were screaming still, even muffled by the doors it was loud enough to make a piece of her rattle inside. Her sneakers squeaked against the floor and she nearly stopped, she nearly let the doors stop her.
         Her face against the glass, the crack tickling her skin, Kimberly stood there and let herself breathe. Ahead it was nothing but static, just the air from inside her lungs looping back, recycled and clear. He said, and it went in time with her respirations, he said. She could have stood there all day and found the rhythm. And he said, they didn’t even know each other. All voices were fading, it was getting so quiet. You know what he said. And it was so easy to accept everything as part of the background. Fingernails on steel, hair in the eyes, a surface that never relented. They were all obstacles. But he said. And she would never really know otherwise. We don’t even know each other, she said. Some things didn’t need to be true. He said-
         “Shut up,” she whispered to no one at all and leaned her full weight against the door, letting it carry her in.
         It was a short hallway that twisted, that’s what she came into. A set of stairs on her right led up to the landing that would her outside. But past the bend was a distant hallway that led to the bathrooms and past that, to the library, and then the other side of the school. People were shouting down the corridor but it was so muffled, dipped in wrapped gauze. It extended forever, by the time she finally reached it.
         “. . . learning all the little tricks . . .”
         It was only seconds. It was only what he
         A door slammed in reverberated motion.
         The hallway narrowed, turned into a slit, a blood vessel. The floor was decorated, splatters of the red paint, seeping and fluid, scarce and drying.
         Ranos was standing in the middle of it, bent and gone, solid and wavering, hands flat against the wall, his body rendered stiff, like he had just been thrown into it. Across from him, the girls’ bathroom door was shuddering, the malicious scratchings of the hurricane.
         “. . . just a cut, that’s all it was . . .”
         He was breathing so heavily, his face drenched in sweat, sucking in air through his teeth. You can’t be hot, you’re from the desert. Remember? There were red sneaker prints on the floor beyond him, leading to other doors, other floors. But it was easily erased, and maybe not even true.
         The door bowed as the wood protested, threatening to crack.
         He said he said he said
         Kimberly didn’t know what she did that attracted his notice, maybe the pace of her breath, the scuff of her shoes, the ripple of her presence. Maybe it was none of that. You know what he said. Maybe it was just because she was there.
         “. . . more fear than anything else . . .”
         But his eyes went open and opened wide. His lips moved but what he said was lost, even as the door made a sound like dry spaghetti snapping. It held, or it had to. But Ranos came, driven forward in errant waves, coming so close as she was standing still, before she had a chance to move or say anything he was just-
         “You have to leave!” and maybe she was shaking or maybe it was because he was holding her shoulders, down at her level now, and it was possible he was shaking but no, he never did. Steady like family, that was he. Everything was roaring but his voice was so clear, louder than before, feet stamping down on the soft grass of her brain, one after the other, marching, leaving a path that told her where she had to go. “Get out of here, forget about this.” Harsh and hoarse and was that the door beyond him opening, slivers into black, against all unequal pressure? Like the laugh, and the gaze.
         “. . . or maybe it was just me, the whole time . . .” And the eyes, dark on dark on dark, don’t you see, don’t you see that he’s the same
         “Leave here, it was nothing,” rapid and unforced, he was. “Kimberly, go.Oh, and he even remembered my name.
         “Go!” and one more time, making her stagger dizzily backwards, finding the wall and trying to follow it, her head ringing, Ranos receding, perhaps seeing him fling himself into the doorway just as it closed again, but all sound was gone, all signal was gone, she was falling through radio haze, feet finding the ground by accident, stumbling through layers upon layers, drawn curtains of static, all the doors nothing but doors, the halls nothing but halls, seeking the way back without realizing she was already on it, fueled with a reason that made absolutely nothing but perfect sense.
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         “The flipside of the beginning, where before we had the mundane become utterly strange but passive, here we have something as ordinary as hallway, and a restroom door turned into a violent and frightening thing.”
         “It’s the first bit of direct action and it’s startling because we’re expecting the aftermath, but not the violence itself. We saw Ranos, in the face of it, finally starting to panic and I think he makes a mistake here. He makes a terrible mistake after letting his guard down.”
         “We don’t even see Belmodeus but he’s there no matter what, in a floating voice, in the blood on the floor, in the rattling door. For a second we see the conflict between them utterly exposed and it’s not epic or adventurous or mythical, it’s compressed and frightening and tense, weary and thin. It had to come to this to some extent and maybe it came too early but we won’t be able to tell that yet.”
         “I think Ranos makes a big mistake here, too, makes more than one really. And you get the impression that the mistake is going to lead to something terrible for once, the story almost promises that instead of just promising to string it along more. This is what a direction feels like again, after all the treading water.”
         “Think he’ll be able to capitalize on it?”
         “Oh, I rather doubt it. But let’s see!”

Two Hundred Sixty Eight
September 2, 1997
1440 hrs


Recap: Tyrias receives word from various villagers that Tristian has entered the village. Each informs him of his movements, while he waits, assuming that Tristian is coming to him.

         “And back to the village. Well, it looked promising. We’re back in familiar territory again, Tyrias doing his kind old man act-“
         ”I’m not so sure it’s an act. I think he believes he’s doing the right thing, but he’s going about it the wrong way and Tristian is going to make it into a terrible thing.”
         “That’s our boy. But even so the villagers are frightened of Tristian again, or in awe. We’ve seen this already in how many variations?”
         “The difference is he’s now moving through the water invisibly and we can see him only by the ripples he causes.”
         “Wonderful, so he’s a frog in a lake.”
         “What the chapter is suggesting is that he’s changing the village dynamics ever so slightly, keeping them off balance. The most notable thing, and it’s not too early to point this out, is that he doesn’t appear. It’s another variation on the strange settling into the mundane. We see the effect he has on everyone and it’s not normal. Everybody is thrown off, he’s not acting predictably. Even Tyrias, who has been ahead or at least in-step, expects Tristian to come directly there. But he doesn’t, he moves like a shadow and everyone is only coming to give him the shape of it.”
         “But so much of it is one-note. Brinic comes to tell us of the Terrible Tristian. Arnal shows up to tell us that Renia is with him. The last guy shows up to be impressed that Tristian can fight ten guys. We know these things and yes, we’re seeing villagers react to current events but do we need to devote an entire chapter to it?”
         “You left out Mari’s sequence?”
         “I did, because it’s the only one that works to me.”
         “Really? Too much of the metaphysical for me. Getting into Tyrias’ mental state is much more interesting, because we see how tenuous his grip really is. He’s obsessed with making sure things will be okay in the future and while he’s not psychotic, it’s not a good sign either.”
         “Except for the vague mentions of whatever back burner plot Tyrias is cooking in his head, those do nothing for me. They are long and winding and we have seen it all before. Call me nutty but I want new, I want this story to adapt and change, not give me the same package rewrapped.”

---------------------------------------------------------------

         More footsteps outside, less tentative this time. Not the man though, he walked with a sureity of purpose that none of them could even conceive, every step placed with an eye toward the next action and its eventual consequences. The rest merely walked in hope, without really understanding. Let them find him like this, then, poised and waiting. With a sigh he looked up, let his eyes decipher the interplay of light and dark, the way it coated and revealed the scant contents of his home. A bed that only succeeded in stiffening his back by the morning, when he was able to sleep. The simple chest that held his clothing and other effects. A table he prepared his meals on, the surface crisscrossed with babbling grooves from years of blades. The trapdoor on the floor that led into the space where he stored the food he wished to keep cool and fresh for some time. Another table containing various crafts and gifts that had been brought to him over the years, small and needless and he had kept them anyway. Each an extension, an attempt at staying alive for just one extra day. He had watched one fellow spend hours weaving a trifle from sharpened branches. His hands were bloody and wounded and he kept asking Tyrias, Will they like it? Do you think they will like it? He called it the Shape of Time but to Tyrias it was only a gnarled and broken thing, already crumbling seconds after its final form. If they like it they will keep it. Affection to him meant memory, assocations granted like scars, merged into the mind. The two ways to be remembered, to be loved and to be hated. Shouts all the same from a proper distance. His hearing was departing anyway, bringing him closer to a ringing that always seemed present, hovering in the background of his day. Soon it would overcome and then? And then what? The final total vibration, lashing out until eternity? The wounded man continually asking him where all the trees had gone. He had died in a field, of course. But where are all the trees? Leaning in, the false roof and the distant sky. The first time they presented him with the cane, they had thought it was a good thing. This will help you. They knew nothing of evolution, only progression and inevitability. Steps taken because they were steps taken, and nothing else. No note of where it might go, or what other paths to take. The blood on the man’s hands, and the way he kept reaching out, as if they were all so far away. Asking for the trees. Just to see the trees. Running and you’d never reach them. The first day she had taken his hand and put it over the spot on his chest so he could feel the pounding. You will always have this, and when it stops you will have nothing. Swooping, the dancers against the fire, he had grabbed one that very day, her heat channeling the flame, sweat flaring in the dark and she had said it is only proper and he knew then how much he hated what her eyes said about life, about the village. In kissing her he bit her lip and the blood tasted sour, but she never cried out. When you know nothing else it was truly nothing that you knew. And it was abhorrent to him to leave a trinket behind, as if the solidity of it might automatically grant a space in memory. Better to be erased than to grasp at the emptiness and hope to leave a mark purely by accident. They stood around him and he wouldn’t stop weeping, his fingers creating harsh grooves in the soil, blood staining the furrows. I did it, over and over, I did it and I did it and I did it. Sometimes the scent of dirt followed him, waiting for an embrace. Natural and expected, the way clay could be changed into a shape that the world did not intend. But his hands were caked and stiff and old, and it had been so dry lately. The daylight was so beautiful, they said, and nobody looked away to see the damage done. It could not be terrible, if it could be seen. But his hands, his hands, they broke his fingers and it would not have healed right, if he had lived. The very shape, the more he had to hold it in place the harder it was to let it achieve its final form. Cracks were always forming, flakes crumbling, it could not be directed easily without breaking. Rigid and hurt and reaching. Have you seen the trees? Trees could never be anything other than what they were. And yet they persisted. He’d tear them all down, if he could, simply to remove the reminder.
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         “It’s longwinded but there’s a texture to it. It suggests without really coming out and saying.”
         “It’s being obtuse because it doesn’t really know what it’s saying. Mari’s is plainer and more forboding. She comes and we think we know where she stands, but it turns off she’s just as off-balance as the rest of them.”
         “I’ll give you that, Mari has been the one person who has disliked Tristian from the beginning, with good reason, since he killed her husband. But this does show her a bit rattled, because even he can surprise her. He’s playing a game that’s just beyond us.”

-----------------------------------------------------------------

         “Listen to how you sound,” he said, not daring to move any closer. He had no need to get out and that was how she would interpret it. “Do not let your grief grab hold of your sanity and-“
         ”Do not excuse him,” Mari barked. “Not to me. He has no excuses when it comes to me.” Her one hand was clutching the doorframe and her fingers were white, all the blood fled. That’s what it does, to keep you safe, departing into deeper pastures. A wayfarer had nearly frozen one time, his limbs gone pale and they had cut him to see if he still had sensation, only to discover the slit remained a slit. The body had gone empty. “I saw him through the window, he was just standing there, watching the house. He just appeared there, my children were playing in front of the door and so I watching them, and listening. You know how kids play, all noisy and rowdy? They were kicking up dust but it didn’t obscure anything. I’m telling you, I could see perfectly.” She wasn’t telling him anything, he was merely the listener. “It went so quiet, just before he arrived. Nobody was talking, but they didn’t stop. I blinked and he was standing there and that was the only sign. The quiet.”
         Beyond her the sound retreated, a blanket being pulled back slowly. Tyrias heard it go away, the hush of sucked in air. If Mari noticed, however, she gave no sign, lost in her own story.
         “Do you still have the dreams?” Tyrias asked, and instantly was not certain why the question had come to him. The houses outside bent as if situated behind fractured glass, not of the lines meeting properly.
         Mari moved and didn’t move, broken down into cubes. He must be nearby, a finger pressed across a taut sheet. “I look forward to sleeping, these days,” she said, her voice veering toward a region that Tyrias had grazed without inhabiting. “Because I feel like I have another chance to save him, each night. And I can’t, I try to stop him leaving and he still does. I hear the sounds of their struggle and I race to the forest, and he is already gone.” Her hands were folded before her, and steady. “I put myself in his place, but it still finds him, the death.”
         “Mari, you are hurting.” His dreams were always of ascensions, complexities dissolving into unified wholes. But it stirred him, to watch her persist in this elegant desolation. “You can’t raise the children on your own. It’s wearing you down. I promise you, I can find someone who-“
         ”No, Tyrias, no. I do not need your pity or your help or . . .” swaying slightly, she let herself lean against the doorframe, the world not shifting with her slant. The sky had gone colorless and vivid. “You will not treat me like a tool that has become broken. I cannot be fixed.” The word became alien in her lips, a description of an atrocity that only existed in the wake of a collapse. “You cannot replace him, so I will continue to live without him.”
         The shade of anger he felt at this was unusual. You are not independent of the village. But that was not true, always. “There is no need to be stubborn, or let yourself suffer-“
         ”Stop,” she said quietly, perhaps speaking to someone else. “Just stop, please.” Gentle and soft, her eyes gone back. “I can never touch him, you know. The stranger, the man. Every dream, it is the always the same.”
         “You want to harm him.” The day was turning into a gallery of scars. He’d be getting closer, maybe.
         The barest smile found her. “That would be a start.” Said so crinkled and torn that it was hardly a sentence. For a second she had no children and what she carried could not be born. “He is in every dream I have, Tyrias. When my husband dies, he is there and even when Harnas does not appear, he is still, as a presence, or a shadow. He never speaks, and I cannot go near him. I don’t know why, I just can’t.”
         “Perhaps you are afraid.”
         Mari didn’t answer this right away. She had brought a knuckle up to her face, was about to gnaw on it in thought, but then stopped herself. “There was one dream, one time . . . one where Harnas did not die, I was in my home and I heard the sounds of the fighting. I ran out but by the time I got there it was already over. The forest was a mess but Harnas was upright, still alive. He was whistling that song that I had taught him, that my father had taught me, to give him something to take when he could not carry anything. But he always out of tune, right toward the end of it, he never got the part right.” The brief smile changed her whole face and it shouldn’t have been that way. “And for once he didn’t get the note wrong, it was perfect, the way he did it, it . . .” Mari looked deeper into his home but it was dark. All there was, was dark. “I came to find them both, stnading there. They were already starting to walk away when I got there and I said, stop, I told them to just stop.” The ragged cast of her voice was a throwback into another day. “And my husband, he, he looked at me, he had that look in his eyes that he would have when he didn’t want to tell me something, but realized that he’d have to. I said, what are you doing and he told me, he shrugged and he sounded so sad, Tyrias. He said, we’d have to go with him eventually.” Her eyes were closed, facing the images that were scrawled on the inside of the dark. “I didn’t even ask him what that meant, it didn’t occur to me. And the two of them just left, they went up somehow, up and inside. The air didn’t feel right, it was shimmering slightly, like broken water, and I went to where they had been,and they were gone. I was alone in the forest and they had left me. Walking off, just like old friends. We’d go eventually, he said. We’d go with him.” Tyrias noticed the rate of her breathing, erratic and scrambled, like all the pieces inside her were trying to rearrange themselves.
         She seemed to notice it a few moments later, bringing it back into a proper rhythm with an active effort. “Sometimes,” she said, each word rolled over and let go only when it was ready, “when I count how many dreams I’ve had, I realize I have not slept that much. It’s too many dreams.”
         “There are herbs that can allow for a sleep without visions,” Tyrias said, and he had to tell her and he couldn’t tell her. Even before he finished she was already shaking her head and he had known that would happen. You are too predictable. It was just a statement.
         “No,” she said. “No.” Because it was more true when said twice. “I do not want them to stop. They haunt me and they find me but . . .” she was open then, and lost. He remembered her as a child and the looks of distaste she used to give him. “They are all I have of him, right now. The way he stood and talked, the color of his eyes and even sometimes, his scent.” She pinched the skin underneath her nose, taking the breath and holding it deeply in, as if he might still exist somewhere, invisibly, all around. “I’m afraid that he’ll be gone, truly, when they stop.”
         “They will stop. You know this.” He had no desire to comfort her today. Her grief was a real thing but needed to diminish for the village to continue. A couple days was all one needed to finally accept it. Otherwise the dead would never fully depart. If he still had the strength he would grab her and shake her and tell her so, but all his energy rested in other affairs.
         “Yes.” A not-word nearly. She would not look directly at him, but it didn’t matter. I think of your husband more than you do, because it was easier to not know alone. He was coming here now again, the dirt whirling away with every step, creating footsteps ahead and erasing them just the same. Silent and relentless, it was his own path, however copied. They’d whisper and point and not go near. They knew where he was going and would not stop him. Any moment now. He had a shadow short as a dagger, causing the kind of bleeding you don’t notice until you glance at the ground and see the trail you’re leaving behind. A stone dropped into a clear puddle, rendering it opaque as the mud on the bottom stirred, rearing up as a nebuluous beast. Children running by as fleeting blurs, trying to skirt around a massiveness that seemed to infuse everything with a sort of gilded glint. Shouts of typical life, carrying an abrasive edge. The whole affair about to tip and fall and find out what the downstroke really meant. With Tyrias as the immobile center, allowing himself to be the pivot. The man would come to him, revolving.
         “I thought of all the words I might say to him,” Mari said, having to say because to hold it in somehow made it less true. The witnesses intent, the man reflected in windows reflected in eyes, present as much as a passage suggested, seen through suggestion, because if you stopped looking, he might not be there. “He was looking at me and I thought he was waiting for me to say or do something.” Her voice was parched and drained of all affect, leaving only a flatness that became an edge in itself, cutting you even as you tried to gauge the depth of it. “It was racing in my head like leaves caught in a storm, Tyrias, like those pageants they put on every year at the festivals, I knew exactly how it was going to go. I would go out and I would tell him exactly what he had taken from me. Not even about Harnas himself but the absence of him, the space in my life I keep stepping around to avoid realizing that he is not there anymore. A hole that keeps dragging in pieces of me . . .” she was kneading her hands together, trying to wear away at the skin, past the rough patches to find the tenderness underneath, before all feeling went away entirely. “A hole I keep circling even though I might fall in because that’s where he’s gone and I want to stay as close to whatever essence is left, even if it tears me apart. Because I want to hang onto him, just the tiniest glimpse. I wanted to tell him that and I would ask him why he did it and . . . and he would have no real answer, he’d have no explanation. He’d look at me and see my children and what we didn’t have . . . and he’d break down.” Her face scrunched, breath skipping a pace. “No, he wouldn’t break down, I can’t see him doing that.” But I’ve seen him cry, and fall apart, under a stress you can barely imagine. “He would say nothing because he would have nothing to say but I would hit him and he’d let me. He wouldn’t flinch, or move, or maybe even cry out, but I’d hit him. I’d do it until my hand was broken, until everything that he took of my husband was beaten out of him, every memory and stolen moment, every bit of Time that he gets that Harnas will not. There wouldn’t be anyone around, just me and him, and neither of us would say a word. I’d be standing in the middle of crescent arcs of his blood on the dirt and he would be on his knees battered and broken.” The picture she was sketching was not one that Tyrias could see, it was two grey figures screaming out incomprehensible arguments in the midst of a day gone inverted, strangers who were not strange only because they had the proper number of limbs. Her eyes were hidden and shadowed and saw nothing that wasn’t in the room. And that wasn’t true. And that wasn’t right. “He’d be staring at me like he was waiting for something. For me, maybe. I’d ask him why he did it, then, finally. I’d ask him and he wouldn’t answer and I’d realize it didn’t matter, because it was done and I didn’t care. I don’t want to understand him, I want him to go away. But he won’t go away and I can’t leave and so what can we do, we’re stuck. We’re both trapped. I think he’d realize that, right then, and he’d want me to kill him. He’d give me that sword he carries, he’d hand it over to me. I wouldn’t take it, I don’t want it. It’s part of what he is and I don’t want to touch any of that. He has a taint, he can stand there in the broadest sunlight and not look like himself.” In some parts of the village they might whisper about how he could walk through the walls, or not leave traces even on the softest ground. How he could stand behind you and take a strand of your hair and you would never notice that a part of you was missing. He was incomplete, and that gave him a flexibility the rest of them could not match. He could belong nowhere and remain rooted, even as the ground constantly shifted.
         “So you would not kill him?” Tyrias said, surprised at the sound of his own voice.
         “Not then,” Mari replied, suggesting that such acts had a place. Or maybe that was just how he heard it, brought on a bend in the air. “I would walk away and when I’d turn around he’d be gone, without even a mark in the dirt, his blood vanished and hovering. And I’d never see him again.” She had an accent, as if rolling so many words together had started to affect the very shape of them. It didn’t sound right, a wound in the chest creating a hissing where a seal once existed. “I did none of that, though. I envisioned it but it never happened.” Waking up to find that the dream had only just begun. Nested in the slightest glance, finding him in the corridors and noting that the body was still warm and that what you were truly looking for had just passed that way. The footsteps were still echoing, down in the deep canyons, just a moment ahead. Racing and racing and always just a breeze going around the corner, a hint of cloth and a wisp of departed scent. A bit of a segment and a segment in the flesh. Marks on the wall that were slowly healing, even as the damage never went away. It just got covered up.
         “It seems,” Tyrias said. “But you’ve wanted to do it for a while.”
         “Sometimes I think I’ve wanted to do it before any of this ever happened,” Mari said, in a voice that only barely shook. How could it hurt to not move? You moved and events congealed, you stood still and events careened, there was no escape from the inevitable course. The man was coming and walking and pulling evey thread along in his wake, because the tearing wouldn’t bother him. He had a blade and it was painless or instant, that no one might notice the tugging. The strings were strands and he would give them to Tyrias so he could check the frayed ends and find his own pattern in the skein. “But I didn’t, or I wouldn’t and we just . . . stared at each other. He kept looking at me and I wanted to shout for him to say something, to laugh or mock or apologize. I should have walked away and I didn’t.”
         With a sigh she ran a hand along her hair, smoothing the loose strands that were coming undone from the knot that held it all back. Putting it all together and creating a new texture, that is what Tyrias wanted to accomplish. The man could stamp all the old traces away and leave a new blankness, ready for the nearest scrawl. “But I must have looked down, or blinked, because suddenly he wasn’t there. I don’t know where he went.” Gone, the scuffing of boots on stone. Gone, that faint rustle. Gone, a sound held suspended, taunting with the merest dose of what lay ahead. How many would follow, if the path were even available? The footprints were present, you just needed to know where to look. “Right after that the children ran in.” He had that sense of stasis about him, light trapped in crystals, all motion halted. He was perpendicular to all their trajectories, no matter where they stood. “They came in, one talking over the other, I didn’t know what they were saying. They rarely talk anymore, not to me, they don’t ask about their father. They remember him, in their way, but they don’t want to hear about him anymore, not from me.” This seemed to require a shrug, which Mari dutifully supplied. “I got out of them, eventually, what they were trying to say. It was him, they kept saying, he was here. They were so excited about it, I don’t think they realize who he is, or what he did. Or maybe they do but they don’t care because they’ve already forgiven him.”
         She was pale and the paleness was just a trick. “I said, I know, I know that he was here. And the oldest looked at me, so confused and he said to me, but he was asking about you. What are you talking about, I said. And his brother said, the man came up to us and he asked us if you were home. I think he wanted to talk to you. And I looked at them and said, oh, I’ve been in here the whole time. I didn’t know what else to say, but it was still true. I don’t know if they heard me, they just laughed and ran out, I saw them pretending that sticks were swords and . . .”
         Mari let herself stop, a ball that could no longer sense the incline. She was looking through Tyrias, but not at the back wall, at some other space, trees fashioned as traps and holes bristling with thorny thoughts of loss. “I was there the whole time,” she said, a hand having reached in and pulled all the delicate pieces of her voice out. “I thought he was watching me but he must have never seen . . .” The words ran out then and it was all she had. There was nothing more.
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         “Tyrias’ internal ramblings don’t raise any questions, except that he’s veering extremely close to monomania when it comes to Tristian, thinking the man is under his control. Mari’s section proves that they may be scared but they have no idea what they’re scared of. Tristian keeps redefining himself, first by not being a mass-murderer, then becoming a villager and a teacher and a lover and now Mari expects him to come in and plead for her forgiveness but it’s all in her head. She’s too stupid to realize that it was never about her, it’s about what he can do to her. She’s terrified and she has no idea why and she’s too dense to even realize she should be scared out of her mind.”
         “To that end the final conversation must be a anti-climax.”
         “Yes, definitely. I would have ended it right with her, but again, he goes a step too far and has to hammer the point home. So we get one last conversation about how awesome he might be and even if the implication is that Tristian is going to start doing his own recruiting, we don’t need it here. We really don’t. This is about hitting an anthill and watching all the bugs scatter, trying to figure out what the hell just happened.”
         “The ending is appropriate though, by not having him appear. That was the smartest thing it could have done, in retrospect.”
         “He needs to be a presence but not an active one. As much as I dislike that last conversation, having Tristian appear and drag out the chapter even longer would be the real mood-killer. It needs to build up to something that is never coming, because it suggests that it went somewhere, just not where you expected it to go. And finding out is the hard part and the part nobody wants to know about.”

Two Hundred Sixty Nine
September 2, 1997
1455 hrs


Recap: Ian walks home from school.

         “We’re not actually doing this one, are we? It’s not even finished yet. Give us a break already.”
         “No, we’re stopping here. But so far what do you think?”
         “So far it’s a mess, but it’s always been a mess. It’ll always be a mess. That’s just the nature of the story. Even if it was a tenth of the length it is now it would be unreadable but it can’t really exist any other way. There are hints it’s finally going somewhere.”
         “There are three parts allegedly but we’ve only seen two of them. I suspect part three is coming soon.”
         “I’d say very soon and definitely this year. If it keeps pushing and stays focused, it might be able to work. Otherwise it’s going to only exist as a bunch of wasted time and dead trees.”
         “So it’s getting better?”
         “Oh, I wouldn’t go that far but it’s definitely getting something. Only time will tell, I guess. And on that cliche . . .”
         “Yes, we’ve done enough.”
         “And we’re never doing this again.”
         “Perhaps.”
         “And I’ll appear in a bunch of chapters next year, finally.”
         “That may be wishful thinking.”
         “Fine, whatever. But it could really improve things.”
         “Give it up, already.”
         “Oh, like you should talk. Yours don’t even make sense . . .”

Exuent
August 1997-December 2007
1,387,207 words and still going
I’ll finish this even if it kills me
Cheers.
© Copyright 2007 MPB (dhalgren99 at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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