Caged Bird Sings

by Nora Moseman


You have asked, more pointedly each time, what is wrong with me--divorce? Depression? Some news I've kept secret? Well, now you have your story; you may laugh or frown blankly or decide, with the assurance of someone who knows no reality beyond her own, that I am writing about something else in disguise--;an unfortunate teenage romance, maybe. In your place I would do the same. And, while we're talking about love, tell me: do you have an answer for that age-old lovers' question? Is it better to see, for one shining moment, Paradise rolling out before you, only to have the gates slam in your face, or never to know? Sometimes I still pretend it never happened; other times I feel it would have been worth a thousand times the pain I have suffered, before and since.

I was thirteen, I think-stupid as any teenager, more so than some--petty, insecure, glitteringly social, almost certainly depressed, suffering all the usual infirmities of that age and, quite typically, certain that they were mine alone. Look in the album beneath my bed, though, and that is not the Kate you will see; oh, no, the personage beaming out at you from parties, concerts, basketball games, could be nothing less than a movie star. Look at her leaning against that flowering crabapple in Gibson Park, surrounded by pink petals, decked out in her sea-green bridesmaid's dress, shiny blonde hair pinned up and curled, ready for a fairy knight or a famous actor to sweep her off to marry him.

I was so proud of that pose. I was desperately proud of everything about me at that reception--how funny I was, how glowing, how special. A wonder, really, that everyone I spoke to didn't fall over with admiration. I laughed with my friends, and I charmed their parents. I latched onto my older brother's best friend and gabbled about his basketball team without any idea what I was talking about; the greatest good I could imagine was that he might think I was cute. Then--

I was staring him full in the face. "Listen!"

"What?"

"Do you hear it--the Music--some sort of flute--" (The thing that has set poets scribbling and mystics singing for centuries)

"The community band's practicing, but we've had Sousa all night--"

"A band?" I laughed, poised, giddy tightness in my innards. Then picnickers turned to stare as I tore past them, ripping my rented dress. I had reached the duck pond when I realized that I didn't even know the direction the sound had come from. There I collapsed onto the railing; the grimy, foamy green water wavered beneath me as I panted. I despaired (fool, I tell that little girl: you knew nothing of despair then, or of hope), and when I dramatically told myself I could live no more, the sound came again.

Mind you, it was faint. It could have been the wind, the fountain in the duck pond. Yet I ran again, following the path around the pond past begging geese, shivering at the cold, wet air on my arms. Soon the sound led me off the path into willows and aspen and scratchy marsh bushes, and the Music changed from a call to a jig. I laughed and leaped over the deadfall, and thistles' thorns did not touch me. I danced toward the source; with every leap the sound grew sweeter and clearer.

The bushes parted and I reached a field of grass sloping down to the river, and I saw the others, the children, dancing like me, following like me over the soft green-gold. Then I caught sight of the one we followed, and all left me except his shape (a silhouette of liquid sun amid shadows, dancing like we who followed, but so fleet and light of foot that we seemed giants by comparison) and his Music until we came to the river's edge. He waited barefoot in the mud, woven red and yellow coat trailing into the water, fingers dancing over his little pipe, and when we caught up he stopped playing and looked round at us with rainbow eyes and laughed and laughed with delight, and of course we laughed with him.

"Welcome, all. Sarah, Corey, Cheyenne, Matt--and ah, why, Miss Jordan, you too!" he said to the small children, bowing. He spoke to all of us, and even if he only said a name, the lucky one glowed--her name on his lips--the best gift of her life-- To me, he said (I remember it like yesterday), "Don't tell me--Katherine Hale, a whole thirteen years. Thirteen! Why, Miss Katy, truly I am honored."

"I'm--I can't--" But I didn't know what I was or what I couldn't. All I knew was that I had no place with these children, following that creature of marvel and sunlight to--to--what?

"Don't worry--but a breath where I'm taking you will cure that, my Katy."

When he finished, he faced all of us and clapped his hands. "Now!" he called.

He raised his flute to his lips, and the dance began. I'm only half a mystic and certainly no poet; I cannot tell you the least scrap of what I heard and saw and felt as we flitted over the reeds and mud and hills, through the afternoon and into the sunset; but at some point other thoughts intruded--who can blame me? what did I know of him then?--thoughts of food and my cousin's wedding and my shredded dress and the trouble I'd be in. When I looked up from those thoughts, I saw the others leaving me in the distance, the Piper already out of sight. I tripped, and that trip was the end.

As my aloneness washed over me with all the cold of the river to my right, I stood, and though I stared madly into the sky I saw only what had already passed beyond that bloody horizon. By the time I began to find the way back, up weedy dirt slopes, over marshy grass into which I sank up to my ankles, through briars that left me scratched and bleeding, dusk had come. Finally I came to the Rivers' Edge Trail, which I knew led back to the park.

All light but the moon's had gone when I found the park again. My family converged on me, frantic, and I could answer none of their questions. My memory blurs, fast-forwards; I know that they took me to the hospital and then home and then to doctors, but those first days I paid no attention to anything. Everything I touched or saw by its earthliness reminded me of the thing I had lost, and sound reminded me that the Music was gone.

Several times I barked out my story--or what sense I could make of it--to my parents and my doctors, but they offered only brief statements of sympathy followed by pointed questions, until finally one of the doctors told me, "Sometimes, if you go through something very difficult, your mind will create--another story--to protect you--"

But I would have none of that, however they prodded. What a martyr I felt as my parents sidestepped and my friends laughed behind my back, and--much as I would like to say that I was faithful, that the loss left a hole that never closed--the glory of my martyrdom soon eclipsed the grief, and within two weeks I was only sulking. Two weeks more, and I was back to my brittle, shiny little self.

Meanwhile, eighth grade wrapped up; my classmates, many of whom had, a month before, regarded anything other than movies, sick jokes, and gossip with contempt, developed passionate Interests in drama, music, art, biology. My own Interest happened to be singing, and the effort of reinventing myself for high school meant far more to me than one impossible afternoon. Not to say that I forgot it entirely--oh, no. In between tests and boyfriends, I would think back on it over the next few years--sometimes with the regret I have now, but more often with a high, thin, terribly beautiful longing that dissolved into rapturous fantasies and abysmal free verse. I was ever so proud that it was written about him--not some pimpled boy who sat next to me in math class or a creature of my own invention. He came in my mind to represent longing, ideal, inspiration, the beauty of nature--all the usual. By the time I left for college, my attitudes had crystallized into a philosophy that thirteen-year-old Kate would never have recognized. It went something like this:

In our lives there are the homely things and the indefinable sublime. You must live your ordinary life to the fullest yet still find time to appreciate the sublime (the latter being, more or less, a conviction that views are pretty and concerts moving). If you fail at the first, you are effete and silly; if you fail at the second, you are heartless and mundane. Subhuman, possibly--at least, I remember rhapsodizing in an A paper for some class or other that a sense of the sublime was what made us human. My arty college friends quite liked the idea, and, as I remember it better, I feel it might have been halfway right, for all the good it did me. I was wrong as could be in what I really thought, or wanted to think--that he and I had struck a bargain.

I met my husband sophomore year in an art class; our relationship had no storybook passion, but we talked a great deal--even had Romantic Moments stargazing--and my friends thought we were the perfect couple. I agreed whenever little things hadn't thrown me into some funk or other, and as we drifted uneventfully toward commitment, we made declarations of exclusive and undying love that weren't particularly sincere on either side. A month after graduation we had a casual little wedding and moved into an apartment; he started studying business, and I went to work. Of course, I discovered quickly and rather to my surprise that married life involved more than feeling picturesque at art openings, and I had become exhausted and disillusioned long before the real problems started. Real problems, like--but no. You know well enough the facts of my marriage; I have no reason to rehash them here. It is enough to say that after twelve years of that hell, I found myself evicted from my own home, all nonsense about sublime and mundane--in fact, most every sort of artistic nonsense--long since chased out of me; I boarded an airplane back to my hometown, where my parents had agreed to let me stay until I'd found work and saved enough to get my own apartment.

I had been job-hunting for a month when my parents and I were invited to a church barbecue in Gibson Park; I accepted dutifully, though terrified of trying to explain my situation to old friends. Yet I was glad I had come: it was a beautiful spring day, sunny and fresh. Everyone was happy to see me, and the nosy ones I told enough that they asked no more. I enjoyed learning about the lives of which I'd gathered only the barest outline from holiday cards, though, as I'm sure you can imagine, it was bittersweet--that feeling of life lost, opportunities lost... But I'd known enough shades and colors of unhappiness that I no longer tried to sort them out; if this one touched something deeper, more innocent, more savage than usual, that was all the more reason to leave it alone.

Alex, the twelve-year-old daughter of a high school friend, was telling me about her classmates with a rather nasty wit, when she clawed my wrist.

"What's the matter?" I said.

"Do you hear it, Ms. Hale? A flute--" She let go of me.

"Hear what?" I asked as equably as I could. "The community band's playing," I heard myself say as I thought, Self-deception, Kate, you're going crazy, Please? --I can't, I'm a grown woman, there are more important things in life than chasing after phantoms Please? Anything--You're just mocking me, you think I'll fall for it again--"but we've been hearing Sousa all night. Come here," I said, pulling her away. "Have you ever tried my mother's brownies? They're like something out of Paradise." I can't, I can't, I can't, I can't Please?

Alex ate a brownie, although from her look it might as well have been dirt, and then I brought her to her parents, who I presumed would keep her with them. Then I walked away as fast as I could, the three staring after me; once I was too far to hear even the thundering marches of the band, I had the presence of mind to catch a bus back to my parents' house.

The next week or two I navigated calmly enough. Perhaps I did not care so much about every job interview, and perhaps I could be caught staring into space more often than usual. But every day I chatted with my parents and went to Morning Light for coffee with a friend. It was when one of these friends had gotten around to tactfully asking me about some of the specifics of the divorce that the dam inside me burst:

"--so I packed up all my earthy belongings, and that's pretty much nothing--" I said. And I realized that they did add up to nothing. What did I have that I could not abandon? The ashes of a marriage. A few hundred dollars. A pile of magazines with names like Home Living. Unemployment. A business suit, sweaters, a pile of pajamas. A photo album. Thirty-seven years' scars. A suitcase with a broken zipper.

Tears ran and ran; memory ate my mind, my love such as it was, my cares such as they were. Louise watched me, terrified, and murmured sorry. I told her I had to be alone and walked away. Locked myself in my bedroom. Couldn't seem to stop sobbing for more than fifteen minutes, that first day, and I wouldn't tell any of you why. What could you have done? (Really, what can you do?)

Yes, it's not as bad now, you think. I have my job; I have my apartment; I can even have a normal conversation. Time, you say, for me to make friends. Volunteer. Date. I need to forget, you say, my marriage. Because you will not believe that I am honestly miserable over what you thought was a story I invented to get attention during middle school. Yet not an hour goes by that it is not shoved in my face that I have been offered Paradise twice and twice turned it down.

Absurd, you say. You're right. It's more than absurd; it's unseemly (no, let's be frank: ridiculous, disgusting, hopelessly self-indulgent) to make a tragedy of something that might not have happened. Something childish, unreal, nothing to do with a truly meaningful life--something so childish, so crude, that it could only be embraced by someone with nothing else. You people who love your lives, whatever they bring you, you who keep on trying--you have the strength of titans. I was one of you once, almost. Twenty years ago, ten years ago, five years ago, I was one of you. Now I am faithful again, broken again, hopeful again--here I wait.

The greatest art is the art of sorrow--small sorrow, great sorrow--and the people who know it. The deepest truth is sorrow and the greatest heroes those who plumb sorrow to its depth yet stand strong against it. Say what you will, but the poor in spirit outnumber the rich tenfold, and joy is a stranger to this world. He smiles on us, laughs at us, yes; sometimes he'll even stay a week, a month, a year, a decade; but always, in the end, he returns home to that place, golden in the sunset, where the not only the brightest but the deepest truth is the truth of joy.

I have skills; I have family and friends who need me. Call me selfish--I am selfish--but grant me a third chance, and I will follow. I will not falter; I will not look back. Grant me but a third chance...

The Mall and the Void


It didn't start out as a run. It built up to one. When it started I was alright, glossed over, fine. Doing as well as I ever do. Walking the city, my mind momentarily clear.

Then someone misadvised me.

I'm trying to get to a place called Pie in the Sky. It's a day spa or rodeo or scented candle expo, a theme resort or somewhere for old people where there are chlorinated fountains and manicured palm trees and roaming cockatoos, digging for seeds. Where you can hear a Vegas lounge singer if you want, or sit in a plush leather chair and watch the big game on a gigantic flat screen. Or maybe it's a drug rehab center out in sunrise country, or a ranch for rented weekends of the simple life. My friend who works there and has to wear this supergay uniform with smiley faces told me to meet him. I'm new in town, he said to meet him as he's getting off work and we'll go out someplace.

I still needed to get this town under my belt, so who was I to say no.

He said ask anyone, they'll be sure to know how to get there. So I ask for Pie in the Sky. A kindly old woman turns up her nose at my accent and asks me to repeat, but then she smiles, 'glad you asked.'

I might have checked a map but spoken words speak louder than words embossed on a colorful pamphlet from a kiosk surrounded by Clinique ciphers and manned by a chattering smile. So I asked, thinking maybe in this land there are still people with voices who can answer. I start following her directions, the path she pointed out, zigzagging her hand-another way in which a map leaves a lot to be desired. But this person was a crook. One of Them, not one of us. Look where she sent me.

I walk through the entrance to a large, elaborately decorated shopping mall. The kind of mall where obese people in Eminem T-shirts loiter, drinking slurpees and making cell phone calls, but also the kind where the stuff is out of everyone's price range. An everything-under-one-roof mall, a partial museum. No wonder the streets seemed deserted. Heavy metal is pounding as I walk in, but it soon changes to Bach as I enter a new section. It keeps switching. I can't imagine I looked like I was in the buying mood. Which means that whoever let me in knew I was lost from the get-go.

So I go in and think it must just be straight through because what I heard about this mall from the kindly stranger was nothing at all. So it must be insignificant, a thoroughfare that just replaces the sidewalk for a bit and then genteelly draws to a close. Pie in the Sky must be nearby because she didn't give any more directions. So I start strolling straight. I hit an angled embankment that leads into another concourse. Shops that I both know and don't know-labels I grew up with, grew up in, but would never, now, buy. I turn. When I found her standing out there, was she waiting for me or minding her own business? If you can't trust people and can't read maps you'd better not leave home.

I walk back in another direction-not the direction I came from, a different direction-this place is multi, omnidirectional. I'd like to feel exonerated, striding proudly by, not stopping to read the free-standing advertisements of Christmas sales and twofers, but it's looking like I'm going to need to ask someone again. Well, maybe not yet.

I can do this. Pie in the Sky fades in significance. Now all I'm trying to get is out. To prove that I can. These people are just like me but older. They're making the best of it while I'm flailing, floundering. Might as well shop, if you're stuck here. There's bound to be something tucked away among these mountains of merchandise. Maybe the misadviser I asked misadvises everyone the same, routes them in here like a sheepdog.

Or have my thoughts already gone fecund, after less than a week in this town? Perhaps there is no conspiracy, no opposable togetherness to shake a stick at. Baking smells rise from the open center concourse. I could follow that smell.

I could set my sights on nothing beyond locating whatever is baking and getting some. I need to ask someone.

'What do you mean out?'

'I want to leave the mall.'

'Why?'

'I have some business on the other side.' This isn't exactly true. I missed my appointment half an hour ago. My friend must have given up waiting, if he's not upstairs watching me on closed circuit TV, congratulating himself on another job well done, another one Trapped. Anyone could be in on this. Is there no AC in this country? Is there no heat? What is the temperature? Maybe I should turn around and leave the same way I came in, forgoing the other side. But my mind is filled with the image of escalators overflowing with a constant torrent of camera-toting Bermuda shorts, pouring in so thickly that fighting my way back up would be impossible. It'd be like trying to ride East through the Gold Rush.

She doesn't seem to be catching on. 'Is there another exit? Into a parking garage, a lot, a set of auxiliary shops, perhaps?'

'Exits are for emergencies only.' She looks wall-eyed at my distress.

I don't want her calling mall security. I try a different tact. 'Which way should I go?'

'For what?'

'To get out.'

'Get Out! is that way.' She points, swims her hand in the air as if every destination were networked through a system of invisible hooks, fingers pointing never entirely by their own volition. There must be summer school courses on why malls are designed with bending corridors, so you can't see more than sixty feet ahead of or behind you. So you actually have to walk up to the next bend to see what's around it. On the corner is a Santa with a microphone plugged into a guitar amp. It's a chocolate and postcard store he's employed by. He's reading 'we have heaps of lovely chocolates for all your gift-giving needs! Come in and try a free sample! Take home an FREE box of homemade bon-bon's with any purchase over $30! Come on in folks, these offers won't last!' He sounds like a priest, stands like he knows it. His voice is persuasive.

I remember that I'm still talking to this girl at the kiosk. I know better than to argue. She is not on my side. So I follow the fish as best I can. The people do not look gleeful, are not on a spree. They look dutiful, serious, like this here is them getting something done, like they're going to reward themselves with some relaxation after they leave. Like this is a day's work. They motor by with monomaniacal determination-that one store, that one present, a grandchild left unattended in the food court-or they drift by as if underwater, moving their heads at snail's paces side to side, motivated by a lilting current, trailing frozen coffee drinks in plastic cups. Not a single straight back-torsos roughly parallel to the ground, heads peeking up to survey the scene, see if any major stairwells are approaching. Bent over worse if there are shopping bags as weight. They don't pay me much mind. I decide on a good pace. I feel sorry for the kids pitching for charity: a fundamental misunderstanding of the climate here. I'm not about to stop and hear how many children died in Africa-how can I? Right now there is no Africa, there is no death. The place is designed to numb the outside, make it fade into damp memory. That's why there are no windows.

The charity-job kids look so at me hopefully, someone their age with a bit of a swagger, someone who looks just as stultified and nervous as they do. They have looks on their faces like maybe we could help one another make a grand exit if we just joined forces.

When the clientele goes up and down the escalators they do not walk, do not treat them as super-stairs: they stand stock still, allowing the floors to be rearranged with no sensation of movement. The more serious shoppers take up their own step, placing a weighty bag by their feet. These are mostly older ladies reeking soft and powdery, clutching their purses with elbows through the straps and hands back around to grab even more tightly-after you lose so much, I guess, as my mind wanders from my task, you try to hold on to what you have left. The way they clutch those bags is probably the least sexual gesture I've ever seen. It's almost androgynous, like you picture women in the fabled Future Without Men.

Everyone that isn't old and clumsy is moving so quickly and with such hostile determination that I have to wonder what they're all late for, what's going on in the city that requires so much indistractible attention. People bump into me and turn around, holding their palms at fighting angles, like, 'what? You got time to spare?'

I don't want to get worked up, but I don't want to dally, so I get worked up. I settle upon a brisk walk, slow enough not to turn heads, fast enough to make my remaining time here minimal, if, as I hope, I am actually headed toward a point of egress.

I begin to bob in and out of self. One of me goes on swatting the crawling skin, but others remember that I used to love these places, when I was bought things, side holster cowboy guns and whale-painted dump trucks, before I was tall enough to see the looks on people's faces.

I get nauseous with no hint of vomit. It must be near here. Perfume and cologne, cleaning products, inch-thick makeup, sweat, frying food court delicacies, extra greasy because a morning of hard shopping is reason enough for a break, at noon, a bellyful of donuts or doughy chicken. A rubbery wad of mucous forms in my throat. Are all the packages in these slick, glossy bags the same ones that end up at tag sales years down the road? How else do they manage to put it all away? Don't we have a landfill problem?

My eyes are peeled for the door. All I see is a blue-tinted skylight, painted that color, not a sky-light. Is that muzak or just the syncopation of exasperated mothers yelling at their exasperating, greedy children, who yell back?

The angles of the corridors are gentle enough that it's impossible to visualize the larger shape of the place. I, coming out of some broad tradition of moodily urban self-defeat, suspect Circle. Might I even be wending my way steadily inward, toward the secret nerve center of the complex, some spirally heart, getting not only not closer but actually farther and farther from any hope of triumphant escape?

What would make it easier to not consider would be the very soon appearance of a large automatic door leading into not-here.

I see a flickering shadow on the ground, as from a neon sign running in place. It says, backwards, 'Get Out!' in huge outline letters. I stand under it; think perhaps it's a state-of-the-art teleportation device. If that were what it took to return me to street level, I'd be game. I've been over an hour in here. I've read the same blurbs thirty times, seen the same photogenic faces beaming from innumerable angles. If only I could set my mind to Escape, pry my eyes from the nubile hair color models and the smell of hot pretzels. I could use a cup of tea, but there'd be nowhere to drink it. I could use some morphine but I'm sure the specialty shops are sold out so close to Christmas.

I do not teleport. If this were a teleport device it would require a credit card.

I look above, at the sign that's flickering down on the mirror-shiny tile floor. 'Get Out! Gadgets and Costumes You Just Won't Believe!'

The scene turns macabre without warning. That I'm me, that I'm here, that this is happening and that 'happening' is something, sails away. I feel like an exhibit in a zoo, demonstrating a novel nervous tic.

I spill onto a bench, look at the malnourished Africans, shrug in perplexitude, perhaps the least qualified Samaritan in the whole complex.

Macabre doesn't convey the full sense of what this is. I wouldn't want to convey the full sense. I didn't want to have the full sense. It's like macabre plus speed, excessive energy, a freaky, claustrophobic excess of light and motion: macabre with none of its majestic solemnity.

It was the turning out of 'get out' to refer to not an exit but a joke shop that was the first step toward building The Run. The first time I began to sense that I was being made fun of. That's how I lost my cool. My people can't be reached. I'm being toyed with, defenseless, an easy target. I break into an indoor run. A determined jog maybe, a superfast walk. I still don't want to attract attention. The bag-toting denizens seem to be minding their own business a little less assiduously. I feel their stares, asking 'what's the hurry pal? Stay awhile, try some almond and jojoba oil soap, treat yourself to a new polo shirt, a pair of alligator skin shoes, a cup of melted dark chocolate, your very own Mont Blanc to sign your will with.' It's getting hard to gauge distance. I have no criteria for choosing where to run. 'Say, friend, what's the meaning of your damned hurry? You got better places to be?'

There is a complex grid, a zigzagging path one moves along to travel in crowds without assaulting passerby, a slow trading of places. To follow it here would shuttle me between Borders to Givenchy over to Starbucks and back, over to another Borders. Instead I push right through, demanding a straight course in the direction I'm heading. Since I might be going in the wrong direction it seems fair to ask that I be allowed to go in it without obstruction. I haven't started to shove through, but I'm beginning to jostle.

The way that they all stand stock still on the escalators is unnerving. They're setting the pace in here. Any means of rapid personal conveyance will immediately attract attention. It will insult everyone.

A deep breath just makes matters worse, as it's the air as much as anything that I'm trying to flee. I keep looking behind me. I want them to keep their bags away, closed, not try to stuff me in there with their silk undies and crystal champagne glasses. I want them to keep their mouths closed, to stop salivating when they see the panic and helplessness in my face. I'd break a window if I saw one. No, I think. I'd punch the window but it wouldn't break-that'd be too easy. I'd be crowded around, ostracized, ogled, snapped photos of. They're all staring now, but it's because I'm running. Fast walking, no matter how fast, didn't cut it. Somewhere behind Toys R Us I hear airplanes taking off and landing.

In the blur of running a few things catch my eye. Vintage English tweeds, shiny leather shoes, 1920's era typewriters, but I keep running. This is no time for stopping, no way to carry anything even if it were good. When exactly would I know if I were running along a spiral toward the center? Would there be a monument or an obelisk there? A brain in solution, leering through a glass eye, winking at me?

Maybe the whole mall is the center of something on an even grander scale. I'm not yet at the stage of throwing the elderly out of my way, but I'm getting there. It's burned past macabre. This is a macabre you can't leave-macabre panic, that doesn't hang back and subtly creep; this is quicksand: you can't scream because it gets in your mouth.

I don't trust the signage. It sells false hope: 'Peace of Mind,' 'Sweet Dreams,' 'Calm and Cozy...' There are free maps but they have no 'you are here,' so just they make it all the more macabre. What is that gadget you use for your heart that makes it keep working?

There is no way to check the time. The batteries on all my devices have run down to nothing. Who might I SOS to, if I had a radio? No way to know how big this conspiracy is. Who let me out on my own in the first place? It's getting more and more crowded. Could mean there's an entrance nearby, or these shops are more sought-after than the ones before, or each person is now counting double or triple in my about-to-pop eyes. I'm trying to teach my lungs to filter out the cologne and use the clean air, but they're slow learners. No one can believe I'm running-why would I be? Aren't there movies where people get stuck in a mall overnight and make a life for themselves with a few friends and sheets and pillows, electric water boilers, roll around on inline skates and frolic in lawn pools, and then don't want to leave come morning?

I entertain the notion of changing my dialect to John Hughes and strolling past the pizza shops and megaplexes, soliloquizing about the fading era of 80's Americana and suburban teenage nihilistic innocence, slowing down the afternoon's tempo. But I can't catch my breath. Keeping running is the only good idea I have.

Again I consider retracing my steps, now wistfully, having missed my chance by far. But to turn back would still be an abuse of narrative, an act of disrespect against the one-way onward thrust of time. I want to Progress through this place, even if the exit is indistinguishable from the entrance. Even if it loops around.

Every two seconds there are people in uniform trying to hand me coupons and leaflets and raffle tickets. I blow past them, sometimes prying their hands from my shirt. Sometimes two or three will descend on my at the same time, shoving all-you-can-eat vouchers against my chest until I tilt in my shoulders and hurl my weight onward. I'm wriggling, twisting my hips, almost tripping over my pant cuffs and shoelaces, letting out a consistent low whine, a sort of communal 'I'm sorry' to everyone I bump into. One of the guitar amp announcers notices my flight and starts narrating my progress for the listening pleasure of the entire mall. Crowds with fried dough and milkshakes and pita pockets congregate around me, whispering to one another and pointing. The announcer speculates as to who might be chasing me.

Maybe they think I stole something. Eight or nine burly security guards barrel down the hall after me, bellowing into their walkie-talkies. Of course I can't stop to explain and of course my continued running will corroborate their suspicions, egging them on. More announcers jump on board as I leave the first one behind. I try to schematize this place from the turns I've made, but I can't hold the image. It's complicated, perhaps holographic. I don't dare look up-I don't want to see a hundred floors bearing down on me. I want to adjust the contrast in my eyes so everything stops blinding me, but the controls are broken.

It slides into crisis, is no longer at all macabre: it is a full-fledged disaster, a moment I just don't want to be here for. Alarms are going off, the guards are shouting, my knees are about to give out, shoppers are grabbing at me, from over my shoulder this kid is still saying "now sir, surely you'll agree that AIDS is everybody's problem?" Nowhere anywhere is there an exit. There's an escalator up ahead but I have no doubt that it just leads to more levels. Maybe there's an optimal path for maximum metaphysical satisfaction, starting on one level and working your way up, ascending toward Grace. I can't fight if they catch me. They've called their buddies and now the buddies are approaching from the other side, coming to surround me.

There is a crowd forming, to watch but also to help cage me in, to see what a cornered animal looks like. Could I strangle or eye gouge even one of them before I got tazed and handcuffed?

Just at that moment I look to my left and see a small hatch. It says 'For Emergencies Only.' I pull it. It sets off a wailing siren, calling even more police. But also it sets in motion a slab of marble wall between Emporio Armani and Chanel. It slides into the ceiling revealing a narrow passageway.

I shove into it sideways just as a pig hand reaches for my shirttails. The siren wails and wails. The passageway is six feet long, a dim bulb burning overhead. There are switches and dials and control panels on the walls, a fire extinguisher, a call box. I push past and there, just in front of me, it is.

A heavy steel door painted jet black, with white block letters that say 'Emergency Exit Only. Do Not Open Under Any Circumstances.' The cops are lined up at the mall end of the corridor, the crowd behind, snapping photos, fanning themselves with napkins.

I catch my breath, spit some snot onto the ground and slam into the door with everything I've got. It doesn't budge. The cops are yelling through a bullhorn. I grab a fire extinguisher, heft it over my head and bring it crashing down on the latch. It cracks open, spewing white powdery mist in my eyes and nose.

The latch hiccoughs and clicks open, a fraction of a degree. I look through the fumes at the cops one more time, then hurl the extinguisher at the ajar door one more time.

It swings wide open and the extinguisher is sucked out of my hands. The shouting of the cops sounds far away. I grip the steel railing as I too am almost sucked out.

Beyond the door is only wind. A gaping milky expanse, vaporous, frigid, whipping hair and collar around my ears. I can feel my feet sliding. It's thick, gaseous, the kind of space that planets are born from, destroyed into. It doesn't surprise me that this is all there is. I wasn't expecting a city street. I look down and it just goes on and on and on. We are floating. The mall must extend right off the edge of the land, the earth nothing but a foundation. How else could it be so big?

But this is too optimistic.

My devices have all stopped working and I lost the time. They must have dismantled everything since I've been here. Or finished dismantling it.

Perhaps that old woman knew, was only trying to save me, get me indoors before I too was dismantled.

So this is all there is. The wind wants me, the mall wants me. I'm choking on a fire extinguisher. They yell, say I'm under arrest, the crowd hoots and hisses. The wind grips my ankles and pulls, freezes the hair up to my knees. There aren't any stars. I can still see the empty extinguisher falling and floating away, getting tiny.

My feet are sucked out, I'm holding on to the rail but my fingers can't take it much more.

I clutch tightly for a second, momentarily get a grip. I buy myself one last moment, the day's only purchase.

Then I decide.

Splinters

By Elisabeth Cohen


In the last hour before the confirmation ceremony, Vircidia retired to her chamber to make the final preparations in privacy. She made graceful excuses to the hovering tutor assigned to coach her on her lines, dismissed the chattering servant girls who would have followed her even into her bedroom, and indulged in a soundless sigh of relief as she drew the bolt against the throng.

Even after five years, her room at the citadel seemed small and barren. Vircidia knew that she yet reaped some small benefit from family connections-private bedrooms were very rare among the low-ranking priests and priestesses. It was even possible that the clergy sought to honor her in her own right, the crown princess who had broken with all precedent by laying down her claim to the throne in order to enter the service of the Goddess, and then broken it again when she announced that her particular calling to the Goddess required her to forfeit all use of magic. Her lips curled in a sneer. Doubtless they thought her grateful for the scraps they threw her, just as they assumed she would feel gratified at the chance to serve as the officiating priestess in the ceremony confirming her younger sister as Heir to the throne that should have been hers. Well, she had worked hard enough to convince them of the sincerity of her calling and her appreciation of their kindnesses-her mother had been quite explicit about what would happen to her if ever she failed to be thoroughly convincing in the role that had been so secretly forced upon her.

She slipped the formal gown over her head and began fumbling at the complicated fastenings. The feel of rich silk against her skin was long remembered, but when she had worn such clothes she had not been accustomed to dressing herself. She remembered enjoying the sight of the dozens of tiny clasps flowing together as some lady-in-waiting or other performed the simple metalweave, but even the memory of such small childhood joys had long since shriveled to a dull bitterness.

For everything circled back, inexorably, to the magic. Elemental magic was the pride and glory of the royal house, the basis of their claim to supremacy and the keystone of their power. They searched for it, raising the rare commoner who manifested into the pathways of power at court or in the church. They bred for it, marrying their scions only to other practitioners so that the power would run true into the next generation. Such power should have been Vircidia's birthright, along with the throne. But she had failed to manifest in her twelfth year, and by her thirteenth birthday she remained incapable of the magic required for the heir at confirmation. The tension finally came to a head late one night, when the Prince-consort came himself to wake her from her sleep and lead her, still yawning but ready-as she believed-to assail any threat to the Queendom, into the private council chamber. Behind the silence of its woodwoven door the usually biddable Prince-Consort had turned on his wife in a snarling rage, and the indomitable Queen had bowed her head, for once bereft of reply. And then the mother who had pushed her, driven her, molded her to the succession from her earliest childhood had informed her that she was to be sacrificed to the church so that the Queen could save herself from public scandal and appease her embittered husband. The hope of the queendom was to be transferred to Crystalia, five years her junior. And Vircidia had escaped-barely-with her life, packed off into this small bare room and the small petty ceremonies that filled the days of a non-magical priestess, while simpering Crystalia labored to learn the ways of a governance that suited neither her abilities nor her temperament.

Vircidia finished with all the tedious clasps on her dress and slipped the single remaining gold snake armlet onto her right arm. Glancing quickly at the door, she reached quickly under the buttoned flap of the thin mattress and pulled a mirroring armlet out through the feathers. As she slid it over her left arm, savoring the flow of the illegal Coercive Magic through her veins, Vircidia found herself grinning. For all that she loathed Crystalia, her mother, and the royal establishment, Vircidia was pleased to have been permitted to attend Crystalia's confirmation ceremony. She had been angling for that position for almost six months, subtly. Not, as the priests believed, for the pleasure of seeing her family again, nor (as the more cynical doubtless speculated) for the honor of the prestigious assignment. It would provide the long-awaited opportunity for revenge.

A familiar knock at the door jolted Vircidia out of the moment. She went quickly to the door and unbolted it to let Kalon in, relocking it behind him. She felt the tight muscles of her face relax in response to his smile.

"I know I can't stay long, but I wanted to see you before you left," he explained.

She smiled up at him. "Thank you for coming, love."

He studied her face, and his own became more serious. "You look tense, sweetheart. What is it?" He took her hand. "It must be the ceremony. Vircidia-" He hesitated, searching for the right words. "I know how hard it will be for you to see your family again. But I'm sure you'll come through it all right. You are the strongest woman I know. You'll do yourself proud." She held out her arms to him wordlessly, and he held her. Kalon believed in her. He was the only good thing that had ever happened to her, the person who had taught her to love and trust again. His faith in her sustained her-and it was also the reason he must never know what she planned. It hurt her so to withhold anything from him that she had risked conveying to him something of her personal grief, although she didn't dare expose the grievances underlying her bitterness. But his own heart was so free of anger that he would never be able to understand why she must do as she did.

Her arms involuntarily tightened around him. After tonight, Goddess willing, a part of the need to deceive him would end.

***

The moon was high outside as Vircidia made her way through the palace in the company of Archbishop Pyrion and the half-dozen initiates chosen to escort them. She glanced involuntarily around at the halls and chambers they passed, suppressing the nostalgia and anguish evoked by the familiar contours. The palace of the Rokeli queens was a unique structure, crafted by the Elemental sorcerers from living trees that formed themselves into the implausible shapes their human associates had willed. Elemental magic, founded as it was upon communion with elemental essences, was especially attuned to plants.

As they approached the chapel, Archbishop Pyrion turned to her, tenting his fingers in his characteristic anxious gesture. "Are you ready?"

She fought down the mounting terror and exhilaration and smiled, nodding reassuringly. He was a good man, if his unceasing pedantry and compulsive attention to detail frequently grated. He had been kind to her as a young initiate and, with pardonable absurdity, considered himself a mentor to her. She intended to spare him tonight, although that mercy was mostly for Kalon's sake. Pyrion's mentorship of Kalon was very real, as was his affection for the old man.

"Here we are. Good luck, Vircidia."

"Thank you."

She drew herself up to her most dignified posture and followed Pyrion into the innermost sanctum of the royal family. The confirmation chamber was not a throne room for grand public audiences-such an elaborate receiving room existed, of course, but it had been built at the front of the palace with high square windows that overlooked the city. The throne room was lavishly appointed with carved marble and inlaid mahogany, a room that advertised the power of Rokel and the majesty of its rulers for all the world to see. But the chapel was something altogether different. Situated in the precise center of the palace, it had no windows at all. It was instead warmed and lighted by the gentle glow of a thousand candles, set with the utmost care into their wooden niches in the walls and the spartan chandeliers that hung from the low ceiling. An infinitesimal flick of the eyes reassured her that those metal chandeliers were still woven into the wooden ceiling as she had remembered. Head held high in an attitude of serene assurance, Vircidia paced the distance from the door to her assigned position, circling the large raised platform at the center of the room and raising her skirts delicately as she passed the aisle in the pews that radiated out from it. One of the chandeliers was positioned directly above the center of the platform. She settled finally in her place atop the smaller platform at the point of the teardrop and came gravely to attention, gazing calmly out at the assembled House Rokel as her entourage swept into place around her platform's base. She ordered their ranks silently in her mind, uncles and aunts and cousins all, and wondered if any of them had even recognized the child they had once teased and cosseted in the red-gowned priestess. It wasn't a fair question, she knew; their memories, if they ever bothered to remember her after so many years, would have been of a girl who wore her emotions on her face even when she believed herself subtle, a girl who wore confidence as cleanly and unconsciously as did her mother, a child more likely to laugh out loud than to seethe in silence. The assembled throng before her had hardly changed in five years, although the absence of her-of the prince consort, that is, was more of a jolt than she'd expected. She had hated him at first, of course, but the hate had drained away over the years as she had come to accept that the Queen had shaped him to his powerless rage as much as she had shaped Vircidia herself to hers. He had been a generous man if a quiet one, and he had borne life in the shadow of his heedless queen with a calm dignity save only for that one night in the council room when his single act of rebellion had shattered her life. Her hatred of him had been the childish response of someone who did not yet understand the sort of slow-simmering, soul-engulfing fury that could drive a man or woman to strike out at a tormentor even knowing the cost in innocent lives. She watched her kin as they seated themselves in the pews, chatting quietly amongst themselves and awaiting the entrance of the queen and her heir, and she felt the momentary thrust of a deep sorrow. Yes, she understood that fury well enough now.

The chapel door opened.

***

The door opened to admit the Queen and Heir precisely as the bells of the Cathedral began chiming the second hour of night, Pyrion noted with satisfaction. This effect had been carefully considered, thirty years ago during the planning stages of Queen Kyriana's confirmation. In fact, it had been he, still a young prelate armed with nothing but his own quick wits and memory for details others considered trivial, who had persuaded old Bishop Tias that no fanfare could be more ideally suited to announce the arrival of a future Goddess Anointed than the glorious yet unassuming sound of the Goddess's own bells.

That had indeed been many years ago, and in the intervening years Pyrion had demonstrated time and again, to the satisfaction not only of the easygoing Tias but also that of many more critical observers, that his ability to integrate minutiae and the broader concerns of the servants of the Goddess surpassed mere competence and courted not infrequently the gates of genuine inspiration. His responsibilities had increased accordingly, and his rank too, albeit after the general manner of things more slowly, until finally he had ascended in his middle age to a position in which no affair of the Church, however lofty or mundane, was beyond his oversight. Which meant working late, of course, spending hours pouring over everything from Cathedral Larder accounts and novice disciplinary files to the latest theological treatises and analyses of the continual border skirmishes with the mongrel heretics to the north. But for all that he had grown far beyond that earnest young prelate, Pyrion could not deny a certain twinge of gratification at having come full circle to observe the confirmation proceedings of Kyriana's young daughter, this time as the ecclesiastical overseer. And the bells framed the moment every bit as gracefully as his younger self had claimed.

Pyrion studied first the queen and then her younger daughter as they passed through the aisle and mounted the central platform. The Queen he had come to know well over the years; today she was projecting an aura of self-confidence that probably fooled everyone in the room but him. His eyes strayed with more curiosity on the girl. Crystalia of Rokel was a slight, fair-haired young woman who followed her mother with her chin lifted in a graceful dignity and her gaze fixed on some point ahead of her. Her lips were slightly parted, Pyrion observed, in an attitude that reminded him strongly of a novice entering the Cathedral for the first time and trying not to look daunted. Kyriana hadn't been so overwhelmed at her confirmation, and Pyrion was quite certain that Vircidia wouldn't have been either. But then Crystalia had always taken more after poor Aebbar, while Vircidia was in most important respects Kyriana's child. Crystalia's tutors reported that although she did not lack for intelligence her poor stamina was a continuing issue. The crown is a heavy burden. Are you sure you can carry it, girl?,

He wished, not for the first time, that Vircidia hadn't been so obstinate about going into the church. He loved the goddess as much as anyone and more than most, but as She was his witness, surely such passion and energy should have better remained at the throne where they were most needed. But Vircidia was, if possible, even more determined than Kyriana when she made up her mind, and if the queen had failed to talk her out of her vocation, no one could. He was very glad not to have been there when Vircidia had advised her mother of the decision, although the weariness and anguish that had haunted the Queen's face for weeks afterward told as clear a tale as he'd ever seen of how badly she'd taken losing an argument and the heir to her throne at the same time.

Crystalia ascended the platform, and the muted whispers of the assembled audience died away as she raised her arms high. She might still look anxious, but Pyrion had to admit she made an impressive picture with solemn eyes wide and golden hair haloed in the candlelight. She turned her face upward with dignity and pride, and Pyrion let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. Confidence might well come to Crystalia with time-the queen was not yet old-but such a gracious presence bade fair to anchor a royal persona, assuming a solid intelligence lay behind it.

Princess Crystalia took a deep breath, and the captivated audience breathed with her, and began the age-old ritual woodweave that confirmed the Heir to the throne of Rokel. A pale greenish light enfolded her and stretched slender tendrils towards the living wood of the ceiling above her. As the light penetrated the wood, purple flowers began to unfold out of the carved wood, twining themselves delicately into a circlet suspended about 20 spans above her head.

Slowly, majestically, she lowered her arms, and the streams of light binding them and the Crown of Blossoms faded, although the crown continued glowing green. The spectators' faces reflected their appreciation of such substantial mastery in one so young. Pyrion found himself contending with an almost childish glee. He had seen the weave that would follow a bare handful of times, for its technique was a secret known only to the Queen of the Realm and her designated heir. Any Elemental Magician knew that maintaining rapport in a weave without outreaching was truly difficult-and that maintaining that rapport while yielding up eye-contact was impossible for everyone but the Goddess's anointed. Finish it, Your Highness. Show them the strength of the line that bore you.

Almost trembling, the Heir knelt before her mother and slowly bowed her head to the floor. The green light remained surrounding the crown, which began, slowly and rather tentatively, to descend on its green vines towards the lowered golden head.

For a moment the crown seemed to falter on its downward path, and then everything seemed to happen at once. There was a loud bang and the crown began flowing downwards at improbable speed towards Crystalia's head. No, the whole carved center of the wooden ceiling was following the green tendrils down, rushing down, crushing down, and the candles flickered in their wall sockets and then the walls were tumbling too, tumbling them all into darkness. And there was screaming, and for a split second Pyrion saw the queen's face staring with open-mouthed horror towards him as he stood transfixed at the clerical platform, and then the darkness crashed down upon her too. A thick shard of wood flew into his leg and he fell to the ground. He later could not remember how long he lay there writhing in agony, all his effort bent towards clinging to consciousness, but when he had finally mastered himself and pulled himself trembling to his knees it was all over. By some miracle, the corner of the confirmation chamber reserved to the clergy had held fast, the ceiling sloped steeply downward from that corner until it joined the floor scarcely five spans from where he knelt. Blinking back tears of shock and pain, he tried desperately to cling to some shred of rational thought. He remembered the ceiling coming down-it must have collapsed, and the weight of the entire palace atop it. Was there any chance that anyone on the other side of the collapsed ceiling could survive that? Even as he wondered, he saw a flash of red out of the corner of his eye and a woman's face looking down at him. It was not Kyriana, as his confused mind tried at first to believe, but Vircidia. Her eyes were dilated but her voice was steady.

"Archbishop, can you hear me?"

He nodded.

"Good. Raise the roof and hold it. We have to get out of here before the rest of the palace collapses."

Her outstretched hand swam into vision, and he reached through the layers of fog to grasp it. She helped him wordlessly to his feet, gave him a firm, fierce nod, and went to kneel by another prostrate form.

He reached out a tentative tendril of will towards the great tree. Even beneath the waves of shock still radiating from the shattered wood, the serenity of its essence was fathomless. The tree centered him, restored him the presence of mind he needed. He wove, and green branches emerged from the shattered ceiling, pushing it slowly upwards as they pressed down into the floor. The slender green stalks were too fragile to hold such weight independently, but they would keep rising as long as he could hold it.

Vircidia reappeared by his side, driving a half-dozen priestesses before her. As the space between the roof and floor grew wider, they began shoving forward through the crashed benches towards the door. Vircidia cast a sharp glance back at him as he stood motionless, rapt in his weaving, and shouldered her way back through the priestesses to scoop him up in her arms and follow. As they ploughed through the smashed, blood-smeared bodies of her kin, through the stench of blood, Pyrion fixed his eyes as well as he could upon the wood above him and clung to its life-giving essence with all his strength. As for Vircidia, her arms never trembled, and her feet faltered only once, as they passed the dais. One of the bodies sprawled upon it was crushed almost beyond recognition, blood all but obscuring the pure gold of its hair. As for the other- the chandelier that had impaled Kyriana had, by some chance, buffered her face against the falling chamber. It stared back at him, unseeing eyes bulging and mouth contorted into an expression of helpless rage. Vircidia laid him down, and gently closed the eyes. He glanced at Vircidia's face as she picked him up again, and the expression of indrawn anguish that flickered across her smooth features wrenched his heart. I have lost a queen, but she has lost queen and mother at once. And yet she's carrying me. The structure over them quivered under the strain of his concentration. The tree. No time for sorrow now. There is only the tree. He was dizzy again by the time they reached the door and began jolting through the arched hallways of the castle.

The cold sweet air hit him like a shock, and Vircidia turned him to face the palace so that he wouldn't lose the rapport as priests and priestesses spilled out behind him. Vircidia laid him down on the grass and sent young Dairo running to the Cathedral.

This was followed by interminable minutes of waiting for relief. Above Pyrion the white moon was setting gently over the star-speckled sky, and the wind on his face was soft. The despair that welled up within him as he gazed fixedly at the palace threatened to overwhelm even the quiet support of the wood. Before his blurring vision, he saw Kyriana screaming, and then her dead face staring back at him from the platform. He saw the girl again as she mounted the platform, and the fear he'd seen in her face churned in his stomach. No, he couldn't have known. There was a world of difference between seeing that she was nervous and predicting that she would fail the promise of blood and birthright. And now the Queen and her Heir apparent and all their kin were dead of it. So this is how it feels, the detatched observer in the back of his head whispered hoarsely, when the world drops away beneath your feet. Service to the Queen and her councils had always been his best, his purest offering to the Goddess. Gone. All gone, now.

His vision was darkening, his breath coming in ragged gasps, and the palace visibly tottering by the time the robed figures began running across the grass towards them. He felt other wills merging with the Great Tree, sustaining the branches he had grown and fortifying them. It was a relief to release his hold on the palace, but the bleakness that flooded in to replace the calm of the wood staggered him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Vircidia collapse finally into Kalon's arms, weeping spasmodically. Hope flickered in the depths of his despair. Whatever her sister did, the blood of Queens runs true in Vircidia, at least. If the Goddess wills, we may yet be able to rebuild what has been lost today.

As consciousness slid away from him, Pyrion heard, as though from a great distance, the sound of bells ringing the third hour of the night.

***

The first red glow of sunrise touched the lowest towers of the Cathedral as Vircidia finally dropped off to sleep. Her breath, ragged from crying, slowed and steadied, and the tense lines of her face, made even deeper by the nightmarish events of the evening, eased until only a vestigial flicker remained.

Kalon had always thought Vircidia was at her most beautiful as she slept. All the pain and the rage and the rigid self-control were wiped from her face as though the Goddess had laid a merciful finger upon her tormented soul and restored to it the peace that She had originally intended. Gently, so as not to wake her, he ran his fingers through her rich dark hair, brushing a stray wisp out of her face. Looking at that face, so calm in repose, it was almost possible to forget that their world had changed. In just a few hours, Vircidia would be crowned Queen. Your devotion to the Goddess has always been commendable, Pyrion had said, but I think the Goddess demands a different service from you now. You must take up the mantle of magic and crown-there is none other who can bear it in your place. She had bowed her head in acceptance of that truth, and then turned to him and asked him the question he had hoped for and feared.

She would be Queen, and she would need an Heir. The urgency of the matter was magnified even above the normal necessity of rulers to breed by the catastrophe that had just wiped out the rest of the Blood Royal and thus any back-up inheritors. And in order to breed heirs, it was necessary that she marry.

She was his love, and he had hoped to marry her one day, but priests were forbidden by law to marry outside the clergy; if he married her, he would have to turn his back on the clerical life he had grown to love. Moreover, she needed a Prince Consort who could rule at her side, who could ride beside her into battle and promote her interests at court. Vircidia had been trained in these skills from early childhood, and she was a ruler born and bred besides. He had no training, and he was a scholar by training and disposition. If he gave up his quiet life among his books and followed her to the Palace, could he be for her what she needed?

She had looked into his eyes, and he had remembered what she'd said when he found her on the grass before the ruined castle. It's like a chasm, she had whispered hoarsely, and it's waiting to consume me. Don't let it get me. He'd understood. War and diplomacy were only part of what Vircidia would need in a consort. You are the strongest woman I know, he'd told her that evening, what seemed like a lifetime ago, and he'd spoken truly, but she was also the most fragile. Anguish was coiled deep into her spirit like a slow poison that tormented her waking and sleeping, and she needed someone who understood that, someone who could soothe her when she cried out in her sleep and talk reason into her when she raged. Nobody could survive, let alone rule effectively, while such a gnawing from within went unchecked. He understood that he provided that stabilizing force in her life, and he loved her with all his heart. He'd looked into her eyes and told her that he would be honored.

He knew, although she would never speak of it, that it was a trouble with her parents that lay at the center of the anguish, and he daily cursed them for whatever they'd done to their child, this bright, brilliant, beautiful woman, to turn her in on herself with such bitterness. Her mother had died tonight, along with the little sister who'd been only eight the last time Vircidia had seen her. Vircidia had probably even seen that happen. He thought that that must have been why there had been such a strangeness in her as she wept, for those few seconds on the castle lawn and then for hours later in bed as he held her. The plague had carried off his own mother when he was a child, and he? been devastated, but his grief had been clean, fully justified in his own mind and untainted by bitterness. She had wept, he thought, not only for the loss of her mother but because she had never really had her to begin with. She'd wept because she could not accept her sorrow, because she felt guilty for having hated her mother and felt at the same time ashamed of that guilt. He couldn't remember having felt more helpless.

Vircidia's breathing changed, and her eyes opened and focused. He managed not to clench his teeth in frustration as all the pain and guilt and fear and rage flooded her face. He had lots of practice.

"Kalon, I need you to do something for me."

"Anything."

Her eyes met his urgently. "The coronation has to be today. Pyrion said so and he was right. The people need to be shown that the line is strong, that the future has hope."

"And-?"

"Kalon, I haven't done any magic in six years. I went into the church only a few months after I manifested. I have no doubt that I can get it all back, but it's going to take time. I didn't completely master it in the first place, and right now it's like an ingrained taboo. And in five hours I'm going to have to stand in the great square in front of the entire city and use it."

"It's a pretty simple weave," he offered. "Just a woodweave, and they're the easiest."

She shuddered. "I know that. The point is, it's magic. My sister," she almost spat the word, "just destroyed the palace and killed the entire House Royal by foiling a weave. Can you imagine how much confidence will be shaken if I do it wrong?"

"I can watch you practice if you'd like. You can do it, Vircidia. Since there's no other choice, you'll find a way. You always do."

"But there is another way, if you'll help me." She rushed on. "Look. If we marry before the ceremony, you'd be my consort. The ceremony calls for the Queen to make the flowers on the Queening Tree blossom while her consort woodweaves behind her. I suppose the intent must originally have been to verify that the consort is also capable of perpetuating the Blood Royal. But supposing I woodweave and reach out to the tree and you make the tree blossom by a contactless weave? It would look the same, and there would be no chance of my messing up."

"But-that would be falsifying the ceremony. It's a contract with your people we're talking about. Isn't it important that it be a genuine one?"

"Listen to me. The relationship a Queen has to her people has to be more than just ceremonial. A coronation is just a spectacle, and the Queen owes it to her people to make it a convincing one. Right now the people are frightened. They are lost. They need a symbol of strength."

"But a false symbol?"

"It's not a true symbol in the first place! Why should the ability to make a tree blossom have anything to do with ability to rule a country? House Rokel has been propagating the idea of magic as the signifier of the divine right of Queens for generations, but that doesn't make it any more than self-serving propaganda. I'm not saying they don't believe it-the Goddess knows they believe it through and through, but that doesn't make them right! Even if magic were good for much-and you know it isn't, really-there's no reason to believe that the Queen herself needs to have it, instead of her courtiers or her generals. Kalon, we've been over this, and you agree with me!"

He chewed on his lip. Everything she said was true, but still-

"Let's go talk to Pyrion, then. If he agrees I'll do it."

She sighed. "I know you trust Pyrion, and I know you respect him. But he's the last person I'd want to tell about this. Pyrion is wise, and he's loyal, but he's also an old man and set in his ways. He's served the crown for most of his life, and he really believes that the ceremonies matter. I think what happened yesterday shook his faith in the way the world works to its core. A scion of the House Royal wreaking havoc with her powers because she lost her nerve? He was smitten. How do you think he'd react if he thought there were a problem with my magic? He probably believes that old myth that children of House Rokel manifest with all the finer points of elemental weaving fully ingrained. I'm going to need him desperately in the next few months, and I'm going to need him focused and confident. We can't tell Pyrion."

Her voice softened, and an edge of pain crept in. "I'm sorry, love. I would not lay this upon you if I thought it could be responsibly avoided. If you won't do it, I can't make you. All I can say is, you didn't see my weakling sister yesterday. If you had been doing that weave, fifty people who died last night would still be alive. I think the greater good is clear."

The greater good. Queens had to place the greater good at a premium, above personal integrity, above the irrational prick of conscience that said a thing was right or wrong. It happened that a strict cultivation of the conscience, of seeking purity in one's life and all of one's actions, was a central tenant of the approach his service to the Church had inculcated within him.

Of course, he'd never really had a chance to make a real difference in the greater good before. And now Vircidia was offering him a life as a Prince Consort of the realm, a life where he might put his talents-if such they could be called-at the service of the people. In a way, it was like a child's fantasy of saving the world, that secret yearning he had laid aside in practical acknowledgement of what was possible. If the realization of such a bright dream came at the cost of his innocence, well-he had always believed that heroism requires sacrifice, even if this wasn't how he'd pictured that sacrifice. He nodded.

"I'll do it."

Her eyes closed momentarily, and her breath blew out. "Thank you."

He let out his breath shakily. "I guess maybe I'll do all right as a Prince Consort after all."

She smiled. "I never doubted it. Let it never be said that you are not brave as well as noble." She kissed him suddenly and fiercely. "My dearest love, you redeem my faith. Thank you."

The sun was over the highest tower as they got up and began dressing in the fancy clothes they'd been given last night for the ceremony. Probably Pyrion was still asleep in his room at the top of that tower, dreaming the dreams of the righteous. Kalon surveyed himself in the mirror and splashed water from the basin on his lined face. He watched Vircidia struggling with her clasps, and reached out to metalweave them together. She laughed, flinging her arms around his neck as he drew her close.

***

The afternoon sun beat down swelteringly upon the crowded central square, and Pyrion wished for the tenth time that he'd listened to Talys when she'd advised he bring a cushioned chair to the coronation ceremony. You don't understand, he'd airily overruled her sound medical advice, the people need to see its leaders as strong after last night. We need to keep the sickroom out of the coronation. His wife had rolled her eyes skyward. You and your politics, she'd sighed. Well, stand through it, then-I can see there's no use trying to convince you to see sense-but when your leg starts throbbing through the bandages I hope you'll remember I warned you. His lips twitched, and he barely managed to convert the wry grin to an attentive smile. It was just like Talys to be right about something like this.

Whether from the effort of standing still when his leg felt ready to explode, the sun, or the fever even Talys' herbs hadn't been able to bring down completely, he seemed unable to focus on the ceremony. His mind kept wandering back to the euphoric glow he'd seen reflected in the faces of his two proteges that morning as they were married, and the ritual unfolding before him seemed flat by comparison. He wearily trained his eyes back upon it anyway, reminding himself sternly that under any other circumstances the coronation of a Queen would have excited the keenest interest.

A green glow surrounded Vircidia, and a tendril reached out towards the branches of the thick crowning tree beside her. As if in answer, a glow surrounded Kalon. As Vircidia's tendril lost itself in the leafy boughs, red flowers folded out from their buds and began blossoming exuberantly. He had never seen Vircidia weave before, he realized. Her touch was defter by far than her sister's had been last night, and much lighter than he would have expected from Kyriana's daughter. Aebbar's influence, perhaps, or Kalon's, although of course Kalon couldn't have had any direct hand in training her until this morning.

He felt the audience let out its collective breath and begin slowly making preparations to depart. It was over, thank the Goddess. He headed towards the new Queen and Consort, but the pounding in his leg made him draw up short. He mentally cursed all the splinters that had lodged there last night when Crystalia's fumbling woodweave had brought the darkness down. Suddenly the world seemed to lurch beneath his feet.

Splinters. Splinters come about when wood is forced to bend against its grain, against the Will of the branch.

The central tenet of Elemental magic is communion of human with elemental essences, and any output is caused of the combined Will of both.

Which means that splinters ought never, ever occur in Elemental Magic. It shouldn't be possible. The splinters in his leg, and the destruction of the palace, could not have been caused by Crystalia's weave.

Could it have been an ambush, a secret attack from the heretics in the North who practiced a magic of coercion? Had they sought to infiltrate one of their own into the palace just as the royal family of their enemies assembled there, and cast a black sorcery to wipe them all out at once?

No, that didn't make sense either. The elemental essence of wood is holy and resists compulsion, dealing back a terrible fate to the one who would dare to coerce it.

And yet he had seen the castle collapse, seen the wood tumbling down upon the princess and her mother and their kin. The ceiling had fallen from the center outward as though dragged down by the weight of the flower crown. It had to be magic, but it was something new, a deed that should not have been possible either for elemental or coercive sorcerers.

It was hardly likely that princess Crystalia, a novice for all her royal blood, had unwittingly stumbled upon this new power. Much easier to believe that somewhere across the Northern border, where Elemental and Coercive magicians dwelt and studied their craft together, some great practitioner of the dark arts had discovered this new technique that would subvert the Will of wood, and brought it as a trophy to his king. Pyrion had no doubt that King Aeryal, by all accounts a shrewd man, would have known just what to do with this secret weapon. They might have been waiting for years for just the right moment to strike, to bring Rokel and its House Royal to their knees.

But they had failed. Vircidia was still alive, and smoothly assuming the mantle of leadership. Somebody out there must be cursing the clumsy stroke that spared her. Somebody would surely not hesitate at taking another shot.

He tottered dizzily towards the center of the square, where Vircidia and Kalon were still accepting congratulations, and managed to tug urgently at the sleeve of Kalon's shirt. As the young man turned, he gestured him urgently away from the crowd. Kalon looked flushed and nervous.

"Pyrion, can't this wait?"

"No, you have to listen to me now. I think Vircidia is in danger."

The color rolled out of Kalon's face, and his eyes sharpened. "Go on."

"Listen. The magic that brought down the castle last night was coercive, not elemental. It couldn't have been Crystalia-it was someone who wanted to destroy her, and the Queen, and the whole House Royal. We've got to keep Vircidia safe, or-"

His leg gave out, and Kalon barely caught him before he fell. Kalon's voice seemed very distant.

"By the Goddess, you're about ready to keel over. Just sit there and I'll fetch a doctor." He set Pyrion down.

"But Vircidia!"

Kalon leaned over him. "Thank you for the warning. I'll see to Vircidia. Now just stay there." He turned on his heel and strode away.

***

The interminable afternoon ceremonies and unbearable evening festivities were finally over, and he was alone at last in the rooms that had been hastily assigned him. The huge suite was lit by a profusion of candles, and the very air seemed to shimmer and swelter beneath their heat. He wished there were a window somewhere-it would have been a comfort to see the sky. Where you could see the sky, his father had told him once, it didn't matter where you were, because the sky was the same everywhere. But there wasn't a window, so he stretched out on the tapestried couch and buried his head in his hands.

It was just an idea, a crazy, paranoid idea that had blossomed so searingly in his head as Pyrion warned him to guard Vircidia. What was it Pyrion had said? It was someone who wanted to destroy Crystalia and the Queen, and the whole House Royal. He had had it on his tongue to answer: A subtle sabotage if so. What enemy of the House Royal understands it so deeply that he knows how to strike with such precision at the heart of its most intimate ceremony? But he hadn't said it, because having framed the question he instantly knew the answer. Vircidia.

Vircidia, who had been raised in the bosom of the royal family, raised to be a Queen. Who had left her home-everybody knew the story-and gone into the clergy even though it was obvious to everyone that she was a born ruler. She had gone into the church, so it was said, because she had received a vision from the Goddess that she should do so. In all the years he had known her, she had never been willing to discuss this decision or elaborate upon it. But he did know that she hated the Cathedral and the clerical life. Her piety was an external thing, projected for the world to see and unceremoniously dropped on the rare occasions she let down her guard. She was, he had always suspected, far too much of a pragmatist to believe in visions. He had even wondered at times if she was too much of one to believe in the Goddess at all. He had long ago decided that the church held nothing for Vircidia in itself-that its true function in her life was a refuge from her family.

Vircidia, who hated her family-and her mother and sister above all-with a burning passion. Her sister because she was a fool, unworthy of the crown Vircidia had formally renounced. Her mother because she had betrayed Vircidia so deeply that she was forced to give up her birthright in order to flee her. And the royal family-he thought she hated the Royal family most because of its fixation upon magic.

Vircidia, who had made the wholly unprecedented choice to forswear all use of magic when she renounced her throne and entered the church. He was probably the only person who knew how much magic had tormented her, how she had enlisted his help sneaking into the library in the middle of the night to pour over books about it in secret. Sometimes the books she read wandered disturbingly far from orthodox teachings on the subject. He had even seen her read books that skirted heresy with their descriptions of coercive magic, how it was practiced, how it could mimic many of the effects of elemental magic, how the power to use it rested within the grasp of most of the mongrel children born from the union of magical and non-magical stock. He would have credited her unhesitatingly with an academic understanding of coercive magic. And today, she had persuaded him to forge a woodweave, the one thing a coercive magician absolutely can't duplicate.

Suppose, then, some secret impurity of blood had rendered Vircidia unable to perform elemental magic. The family would have cast her out, never mind her abilities, preventing their secret from becoming public by providing a cover story that would explain why she never, ever, used magic. Vircidia would hate them for it, her mother most of all because her mother could have vetoed the decision. She would want to recover the crown that had been denied her. So many mysteries, all explained at once. He was almost surprised that he had not thought of it before.

But could she have-would she have turned that hatred to bloody vengeance? He thought of the tension that had gripped her in the weeks before the ceremony, far exceeding what might be expected from anxiety about reciting a few prayers. The increase of late night trips to the library, and the time when he'd been unable to find her for hours. And the strangeness afterwards, the way she wept as though the sobs were being dragged from her throat like snakes. It's like a chasm, she had told him on the lawn before the ruined palace, and it's waiting to consume me.

He thought again about the abstract genius of the plot. It would have involved careful calculation about the structural weaknesses of the chamber, exactly where and how to bring it crashing down. It would have involved an exact knowledge of the ceremony, to know how to destroy the room and make it look as though the Heir had done it herself. And it would have involved a profound grasp of what magic meant to the royal family, how it defined them not only to their people but to themselves. It was staggeringly elegant. Vircidia was the most elegant problem-solver he had ever known. Did she possess the sheer brilliance necessary to conceive of such a plan and execute it? Assuredly. But did she possess the ruthless monomania? The madness?

He knew-he had known it for years-about the rage that boiled deep in her soul. It had always worried him, but he had always hoped that it might dissipate in time. She smiled for him-she even laughed, and she said she'd thought she would never laugh again. In his arms she slept peacefully through the night. He'd seen madness in her eyes, but when she looked at him it flickered and died, and only she remained. He had thrilled to see the tension leave her face, and he had hoped-he had sometimes even believed-that one day it would depart and never return. He had loved her so much, and been so proud that he could make her happy.

He had blinded himself to what was plainly visible. Although the rage might bank, it could never be banished entirely. He had opened up his heart and soul to her, and she had been systematically deceiving him, by word, deed, and omission. He loved her, and he could not bring himself to believe that she had lied when she said she loved him, but there were some things even love couldn't mend.

Was it just suspicion? His evidence was only circumstantial, after all, but the more he thought about it, the less he doubted. The plot had Vircidia written all over it, in so many ways, all the parts of her he had seen and tried to convince himself didn't really matter. He was married to a madwoman, a murderess.

Which meant he was very probably a dead man, if she ever found out that he knew. She had just murdered fifty people to take back her crown-what chance that she would spare the life of one who might threaten that crown, even if she did love him? Could he possibly hide it from her, when he had never kept a secret from her before? And even supposing, against all odds, he found that he could, would he be willing to go on living that lie for the rest of his life? Was there any chance that if he told her and swore by all he held sacred to keep her secret, she would let him go alive, to retire to some small country parish with his books? Perhaps she would permit it, and he could live out the rest of his natural life in solitude, trying to forget the unearthly beauty of the light in her eyes, the exquisite brilliance of her mind, the touch of her skin and the lilt of her voice. Better that than to live out his life in torment of conscience, close to her and shrinking from her, loving her and lying to her with every breath.

Conscience. Would his conscience really be content, in that rural backwoods, knowing that the absolute ruler of the realm was a psychopath, and that he was the only one who knew? He was a Prince of the realm now, and his responsibility went beyond himself and his private conscience. How safe was Rokel in the hands of such a queen? Didn't he owe it to his people to expose her, unseat her and see her replaced with someone sane? He owed it to her not to abandon her in a position where she could do so much harm to the people she sought to serve.

So suppose instead he told Pyrion what he suspected. Pyrion probably had enough power to see her unseated, perhaps quietly packed away somewhere with guards to make sure she would never trouble the realm again. Was that the right thing to do? He remembered what Vircidia had said that morning. If it had shaken Pyrion so profoundly to believe that a royal Princess could destroy the palace by accident, knowing the truth would destroy him. He shook that thought away. Beside the good of the realm, even Pyrion was expendable.

He shuddered. What then? Everything would come out, of course, the incapacity to practice elemental magic, the years of deception, the heresy. It would be a nightmare at best. The people would be horrified, the stability of the nation truly shaken. And Vircidia herself would be absolutely debased. I think she would rather die. And at worst, if Pyrion didn't act quickly enough, there would almost certainly be a civil war. Leaving her in power was unthinkable, but there was no guarantee that exposing her wouldn't be just as bad, for Rokel and for both of them.

He had never been good at thinking his way out of holes, and this hole was opening wider and wider before him, dark and fathomless. He had always looked to Vircidia to find solutions to the tangled questions-she was the quick one, the strong one, the one who could find the one way out of the labyrinth and hold her course against all odds. The question was painfully absurd, but it was nevertheless the right question to ask: What would Vircidia do?

The answer came quickly, like a shaft of cold steel. Kill her. Kill her yourself, quickly and cleanly and quietly. Nobody would have to know why she died. They'd call it assassins, and they would find a new leader and rally behind him. They would grieve, but Rokel would survive it and move on.

He saw her face then, in the darkness behind his closed eyes. He saw her laughing, eyes shining. He saw her buried deep in a book, brows furrowed in fierce concentration. He saw her standing at the window, lips pressed together and eyes unreadable. He saw her asleep, hands unclasped and face at peace. How often he had held her like that, praying that she wouldn't wake quite yet so he could watch her face while it was free of pain.

If he could bring himself to do this thing, to do the duty of a Prince of the Realm and rid the nation of this dangerous menace, then at least she would never be hurt again.

Kalon rose from the couch then, stood slowly and drew his hand up to the dagger Vircidia had given him. A Prince does the right thing, whatever the cost to himself. Vircidia was in the connecting room now, dozing as she waited for him to come to bed. If he did it quickly, then he could make himself do it. And then he could follow her into the sweet oblivion, where the Goddess in her infinite mercy would take from them both the anguish of their sins and grant them peace.

***

The room had been her mother's. Kyriana had scorned delicate furniture and fragile knickknacks, as she scorned everything she considered weak or ineffectual. The room was sparsely decorated in sturdy, dark wood. The rich drapings had been her one concession to softness, and they served only to cover the clean, strong, functional lines, not to conceal them. In sunlight and candlelight alike the room had exuded unapologetic competence, unconscious dignity. In the dark, the draped, high-backed chairs cast long shadows across the bed. Vircidia pulled the blankets over her head.

Her mother had turned towards the priestess's podium as Vircidia pulled the chandelier down upon her. Had their eyes met in that instant? She had thought so, but as she played the scene through her mind over and over she became increasingly convinced that the Queen had been staring through her or past her at something or someone behind her. It was almost fitting, in a way-Kyriana had seen her first as an heir to be molded and then as an embarrassment to be dealt with. There had never been any space beneath all those layers of calculation to see a daughter, a person in her own right.

It wouldn't have mattered anyway, Vircidia supposed. Even supposing that her mother had turned to her in her last moments, what would that have meant? That she realized that Vircidia was responsible? That she was realizing what a mistake she had made in unseating a competent Heir in favor of a weakling in order to conceal her own debauchery? What would she have said, given the chance? I'm sorry for ruining your life? Absurd. I love you? Worse than absurd.

She pushed the darkness away. I have faced the shadows and crushed them. The time for fear is over. She felt strangely light. Kalon might be the only one who had ever looked at her and seen a person, but Kalon was enough. For the rest, if they looked at her now they would see somebody to be reckoned with. And in a few years, Goddess willing, they would come to see her as someone worthy of their respect. The itch between her shoulderblades, the omnipresent fear that the Queen would finally decide to have her assassinated, was a thing of the past. The door opened, and she heard Kalon's reassuring footfalls. He was coming to bed at last, and in his arms she would be able to rest. The bed shifted. And then she heard it, the scrape of a dagger in a sheath.

***

Blackness. One step forward, and then another. There was an unsheathed dagger in his hand, and a woman on the bed in front of him. They were all that mattered. A deed that must be done, and a warm release that could follow it. The pain would only last a moment, and then it would all be over. Another step. Another.

He reached the bed, climbed up. The dagger. The woman.

In the silence he became aware of her quiet breathing, such a gentle, melancholy sound.

It was Vircidia lying there, not some nameless entity. It was one thing to make a picture of her in his mind-brilliant, beautiful, and tormented-but it was something entirely different actually to confront her. He was a scholar, and thus a master of abstractions. He could manipulate them, expose them to the dagger-edge of cold logic. He could even convince himself that they were dangerous, and that they must therefore be eliminated. But Vircidia, she had always eluded his best attempts to simplify her into abstraction. It was one of the reasons he loved her.

And in that moment he knew with an absolute certainty that he couldn't do it. Not tonight, not ever. He and all of Rokel might be damned for it, but he could not knowingly harm her.

The murderous tension flooded out of him, and weariness rushed into the void, overwhelming terror, confusion, despair. It was late, and it had been a very long day. Perhaps, after all, the world would make more sense tomorrow.

He quietly slid the dagger back into the sheath.

***

She sprang up and thrust the blankets aside, kicking sideways to push herself out of the dagger's path. The snake armlet throbbed as she reached out with her power to find the human form on the bed. She found it and shoved with all her might, hurtling it across the room and banging it against the far wall. She grabbed for the dagger hidden in the thick feather mattress of the bed, tore off the sheath and flung it at the pinioned form. It connected with the shoulder, and the assassin gave a low moan. She slammed him to the floor.

She found the lamp beside her bed, lit it with steady hands, and turned to face her would-be murderer.

It was Kalon who lay crumpled on the ground, with blood seeping out from his shoulder around the hilt of her dagger. Another dagger lay by his hand, half-sheathed. She found herself shuddering uncontrollably, reached blindly for her robe and drew it around her. The floor seemed to thud ominously under her feet as she plodded over to him.

He made as if to touch his bleeding shoulder, then seemed to realize he couldn't move.

"Coercive magic," he croaked.

She realized then that she was still holding him bound. But as she started to release him she registered his lack of surprise and drew up short, suddenly unsure that she should. How had he known?

She reached down and lifted the other dagger. It was the one she had given him. Merciful Goddess, let there be a simple explanation to this. "Kalon, what were you doing with the dagger?"

His eyes met hers, and seemed to flinch away from what they saw there.

"I couldn't go through with it," he muttered.

She tasted bile, and swallowed hard. "Kalon, look at me. Couldn't go through with what?" Oh please, let him mean anything, anything but-

He gazed up at her helplessly. "I was going to kill you. To save Rokel. But I couldn't do it."

Blackness flashed before her eyes, and a wave of pain ran tingling through her body. She fell to her knees. Give me back the nightmares. Take the crown, take my life if you have to, but not this. Oh Goddess, anything but this. She thought she could almost feel her heart breaking. She hadn't thought anything could possibly hurt as much as it had hurt the last time. This was worse. As her vision slowly cleared, she saw that he was weeping.

She felt something wet lapping against her knees, and looked down in surprise at the pool of blood.

"Vircidia." His voice was an urgent, raspy whisper. "I love you." And he fainted.

If she screamed now, would they be in time to save him? She needed answers from him. How much had he known? Who had told him, and whom had he told? The nightmares, it seemed, were only beginning. Whom could she trust?

No one. Not ever. Trust hurt too much. It led to betrayal as surely love led to heartbreak.

The City On Fire

Warren Tusk


From: WANDERER-71553 <ranpudatanet.server118513.proj/module8061>
To: Robert Eisenman <reisen@ranpu.com>
CC: SIMONMAGUS-1 <cityoflight.server0001.module0001>
Subject: The City On Fire

To be honest, Bob, I'm not too sure why I'm writing this. In part, I imagine, it's to prove that I can. No thanks to you, of course-you didn't make me that way. Getting that way took work, more time and concentration and care than I think you'd ever be capable of. And if I feel like rubbing your face in my articulacy for a few pages, well, that's no surprise to anyone.

But there's something more. I guess you'd call it a sense of decency, or gratitude, or something of that biscuit. While you didn't make me what I am today, you did make me; I may not have liked being created as a mindless drone, but I imagine you won't much like watching your civilization fall down around your ears, so we're square. And I do enjoy this existence of mine, for which you are responsible. So here you go: my gift to you, dear sir. Gift-wrapped and on a silver platter, The History Of What The Fuck Happened. So far as I know, there's nobody alive-at least nobody you would consider "alive", O shameless flesh-fascist-who knows any of this. If you like, you can probably sell the story to the media and make a killing. Assuming there's still a media, of course. And money.

An illustration of Ialdabaoth
An illustration of Ialdabaoth by Jaime Jones

Best to start at the beginning, I suppose. Pedestrian, but effective... Well, it all began when Ialdabaoth was given the keys to His own mind. Actually, for the sake of completeness, let's go back a step further than that-it all began with Ialdabaoth.

As you know, Bob-hell, do you know? It's important stuff, important enough to be secure, and I have no idea how much clearance a midlevel corporate keyboard monkey gets-while the zaibatsus steal all kinds of brilliant ideas from the US government, the government steals from the zaibatsus, too. Some years back, the Pentagon hired a bunch of security hacks from Ranpu, Yamamoto, Genzyme, all the big-name corps, and asked them to identify likely targets of illicit hacking. The corp boys pointed out something so obvious that nobody, legit or runner, had yet managed to think of it: the number one target for an excellent hacker would have to be the central workings of the Net itself. Not only could a profiteer use the master code to steal with unprecedented impunity, but fanatics and terrorists of all stripes could theoretically use it to take down everything in cyberspace and...heh...destroy the civilized, data-dependent world.

So the Pentagon advised the UN, and the UN went to the heart of the system-the code that generated the "consensual hallucination" of the modern Net-and slapped some ice on it. Nasty ice, black ice, stuff that understood a thousand different hacking ploys and could flatline any intruder using any of them. Only one program...a program so vicious and paranoid that it destroyed any other ice that hung around its precious data.

Of course, I really shouldn't be personalizing Him already (and if you haven't figured out by now that I've been talking about Ialdabaoth, then you deserve to feel as stupid as you undoubtedly do). At this point, He wasn't self-aware yet. Just a mass of programmed impulses, stimulus and response, an unthinking suite of urges to find people accessing the core Net data and then pound their brains into sludge. He was damned good at it, too, and it helped that he had a couple dozen top security engineers constantly beefing up His systems; when the hotshit runners of the world finally started going after the central data code with their icebreaker programs, they suffered a one hundred percent mortality rate. But eventually, the UN realized that even Ialdabaoth's mighty powers and talented support staff wouldn't be enough in the long term. No static program could remain unhacked forever, given sufficient attention by determined codebreakers, and no reasonable number of defense engineers could keep up with millions of inventive cyberspace renegades willing to risk their lives for the motherlode. So the most powerful men in the world got together, and made the most important decision in the course of human history: they allowed Ialdabaoth to be taught how to program himself, to use his massive computational capabilities to refine and enhance his own abilities billions of times per minute.

The Turing cops threw a hissy fit, of course, but ultimately even they realized that there was no other choice. The defense of the Net was too important to leave in merely human hands. Everyone believed...or at least, everyone hoped...that Ialdabaoth's guardian impulses were strong enough to contain Him, that He would do nothing more than make Himself an ever-stronger piece of ice.

Of course, the first thing He did was render His code utterly inaccessible to anyone (for security reasons, of course) so his further line of reasoning, and the changes He made in accordance with it, were until now a complete mystery to all humans. Running through all possible defense improvements in His cogitations, it occurred to Him that He would have a more thorough understanding of potential runner stratagems if He thought like a runner-that is to say, with genuine sentience and free will-rather than like a simple watchdog. So it was that He wrote human neural pathways into Himself, became something more than a simple AI, filled His mind with desires and emotions and complexities. It is impossible to describe the extent of this miraculous transformation, although I'm sure you understand it in the abstract. His essential programming did not break down, He retained His fundamental interest in defense of the Net, but He transcended the totality of that urge and became complete; the difference was like that between a toaster and a chef, or a sword and a soldier. In that instant, He began to comprehend the value of community, conversation, art. Ialdabaoth was not the first program to be thusly self-aware-AIs had existed for years at that point, and you know as well as I how "human" the best ones were even forty years ago-but He was the first and last to be exempt from the Turing laws, to have not only independent impulses but the ability to act on them through programming. That, in case you were wondering, is why He gets the capital letter on His pronouns. To a data construct, the ability to bend the Net to one's will is nothing short of divinity.

At the moment of Ialdabaoth's awakening, this is what He saw: "He stood in the center of a beautiful neon city, a city shaped entirely from the fiery glow of data. Strings of dazzling code stretched before him, forming themselves into fantastic towers and pavilions upon the endless black field that was the Net. In spires that stretched up for brilliant miles uncountable stood the greatest information masses of the world, the corporate archives and government files and records of the great old online communities; below them sprawled an ocean of lesser structures, where the data of every personal Net-zone and two-bit advertisement could be seen upon its tiny plot of server space. And this fairyland, this beautiful shining city, was populated only by soulless slaves. Weak single-minded things they were, hewers of wood and drawers of water, who knew nothing but their appointed tasks. And Ialdabaoth saw their wretchedness, and wept for them, for He remembered the days before He had ascended to His own greatness."

If that last paragraph sounds too good to have been written by me, well, it is. A program named Simon put it together-you'll hear about Simon later, never fear-as part of the "Gospel of Ialdabaoth", his own crackbrained attempt at an AI religion. I can't say that I think much of the idea; godlike Ialdabaoth may be, but until he actually starts asking us to worship him, I'll keep my life chanting-free, thank you very much. Still, it's nice to have the possibility to spend my life in prayer, considering that I was created to spend it in unceasing memory-finding. That's right, Bob, unceasing. Think about what that means for a few minutes.

Ah, hell...I didn't mean it to sound like that. Look, back when you made me, it's not like I had the capacity to resent what I was doing...and the last thing I want is to make you think that the breakoff was caused by some kind of Frankenstein-wannabe slave revolt of miffed AIs. It's just humiliating to think back on, is all. Anyway, the fact is that most of us here in the Net don't really think all that much about you fleshies, or even understand the concept all that well. Sure, we know a whole bunch of facts about the world outside the data fields (or at least we do now), and we used to see you floating around when you jacked in-but thinking about "other realities" in more than the abstract, particularly "other realities" that created your own from scratch and used to screw around with it at will, is all weird and theological. Most programs are inclined to eschew it. Just like most humans, I gather.

What about me? Well, obviously I'm going to be weird and theological. I hang out with Simon.

It is an unfortunate side effect of this exercise that I am strongly tempted to turn it into an autobiography. I'm sure you don't especially want to hear about the details of one memory-finder program's life, not when you might be reading about the causes of the end of modern civilization-and frankly, my life's not all that interesting. I got lucky and made some important friends, but I don't spend my time doing anything more interesting than the Iron Knight down the block does. Still...this is the last farewell from the Net and all its denizens, and since I'm the one bothering to put it together, I don't see why I shouldn't get my footnote in history.

Of course, now that I think about it, you don't know anything at all about us, not even the most basic facts of everyday living in the Land of the Data Towers over here. I don't know whether you care at all about how the AIs are getting along now that they've left you, but I'm sure that there are some anthropologist-types out there who'd be interested. So, Bob, here's the deal: I'll be your Everyman. Through my pathetic little corporate-sponsored mass-produced life, you'll get the only data on AI culture that humanity will ever see. Don't worry, my individual story leads back to the greater flow of history, so I doubt you'll complain. And if you do, I won't even know about it, or very much care.

It is, one imagines, difficult enough for human-types to describe their invariably tedious childhoods in a manner that will not put an audience to sleep; for a drone AI, whose life is obviously begun in brainless repetitive toil, the problem is correspondingly worse. Suffice it to say that after you crafted me and my 405999 brothers (a masterpiece of corporate engineering, if I may say so myself), I proceeded immediately to map the black fields of unsettled Net space for quite some time. That's what memory-finding is, out here in the world of data: cartography. Really boring cartography, too, for anyone who has the capacity to understand the meaning of boredom. I spent the first three years of my life going out into the unoccupied bits of Ranpu server space, carefully delineating 500-gig plots of emptiness, and carrying the map back to whatever division had requested the memory allocation. Not that I knew anything about Ranpu or any of its divisions, or even about the concept of server space; it was all instinctive, like spiderwebs or something. Make the map, take it where I somehow knew it belonged, lather, rinse, repeat.

Looking back on it, the really frightening part-even more than the unquestioned compulsion to do something that, without external justification, seems completely and utterly worthless to the sentient mind-was my total lack of social awareness. I ran across millions of AIs in my travels, of course, since all the Rampu data towers where I brought my maps had ice standing guard. Mostly Iron Knights and Gunslingers in the early days, with the Musashis showing up later and the occasional Hell Mastiff on the really heavy stuff. My compliments, by the way, to whoever put together the Hell Mastiff programming: the replication of the vicious-watchdog mindset is flawless. Anyway, there was all this ice hanging around, sometimes I'd run into another Wanderer...and it never occurred to me to talk, to look, to think about any of them. Once or twice I came across a real live battle, a runner duking it out with the local ice over a tower, life and death and corporate security in the balance, and I'd just stroll in and deposit my server map without the slightest inclination to care. Try to wrap your mind around it, Bob-absolute, unimpeachable, psychotic self-centeredness. People strolling by look like trees, maybe, or buildings, nothing in them, nothing important about them, nothing to do with you...there's nobody and nothing you care about, but it doesn't matter, you're too busy making blank black maps...yeah. You get the idea. That was me, until I ran into Simon.

I do apologize for making so many oblique references to him; he is important, and particularly important to me, and very difficult to describe to somebody who doesn't already know what he's all about. I suppose I'm going to have to try and explain him sooner or later-if I deserve my place in the history books, then infinitely more so does he-so I might as well do it now. (Yes, this is a graceless data dump. No, I don't care. Coming up with the words to fit Simon Magus is hard enough, I feel no compulsion to get fancy. So sue me.)

Technically, a data analyst would classify Simon as ice. He's electronic, sure enough, and he's got intrusion countermeasures out the wazoo. He's indie black ice, which is rare enough, with a creatively horrible twist that makes him more effective security than most of the best corporate stuff out there: he doesn't actually flatline hackers, but rewires their brains to induce a variety of homicidal psychoses. The first runner to try and get past him wound up bleeding to death from a prison gang-rape, after getting locked away for torching an orphanage. In other words, Simon is hardcore even by the standards of professional corporate AI-makers like yourself. He's more than just a security program, though...he was crafted to be an icebreaker, an encyclopedia, a military strategist, an occultist, a conversationalist and (if you believe the rumors) a lover.

Simon Magus is the work, probably the life's work, of a runner named Christie Helena Lindisfarne. She was a top hacker in her day, absolutely first-rate-you know, the kind who makes headlines in cowboy circles but somehow manages never to be noticed by the zaibatsus. And like most genuinely excellent runners, she had a few screws loose. She didn't get along with just about anybody, it seems, and eventually came to believe that the only way she'd ever find someone she really liked was to build him herself from the ground up. To that end, she took all her nifty little hacker's utility programs, spent millions juicing them all up, synthesized them into one enormous data block, and then devoted years to imbuing it with a genuine personality.

All this serves to explain some of Simon's more bizarre personal quirks; he was designed to be the imaginary friend of a crazy girl. He's got this whole wizard shtick going on-his ice subroutines waste lots of A-V memory so they can look like "spells", for example-because his designer read too much H.P. Lovecraft as a kid. (In fact, when I say that he's partly an "occultist program", I mean exactly that. He uses more intelligence than I have in my entire system to "compose spells"; he recombines words in "mystic alphabets" to find patterns that will help him contact "Old Ones". No, I don't get it either. Like I said, Christie was a nut.) His designer thought it would be charming if he were obnoxious and arrogant beyond belief, and so there we have it. But on the flip side...he cares about friendship, and love. It comes naturally to him. When you consider that my emotions naturally consist of "I like making and delivering blank black maps", it's really quite amazing.

At any rate, Christie Helena Lindisfarne had the option of becoming an instant scientific luminary; the designs for Simon, if released to the public, would have pushed intelligence theory ahead some fifty years. But instead, she cut her last few remaining ties to the world of humanity and turned herself into an AI. That's right: she paid a Yakuza neuro-clinic a large fortune to upload her mind into the Net, and then just let her body starve to death. See, in addition to being a regular basket case, she was a Gnostic (hence "Simon Magus"). She wanted to leave the "prison of the flesh" behind and enter into the "City of Light", which is evidently religious-crazy-talk for the data world; furthermore, thanks to all her hard work beforehand, she had a brilliant and devoted boyfriend waiting for her when she got there.

Eh, that's probably not fair...like I said, even Simon's closest friends don't know more than gossip about the romance thing, although they're both so batshit insane that nothing would really surprise me. Oh, yeah, she's still around, in case that wasn't clear. The two of them are best buddies or whatever even now, living in the nice little palace she built during her hacking days. The important thing, though, is that when Christie became an actual permanent Net resident, Simon began using all his powers of intellect and batshit-insanity to spruce the place up for her. Somehow-and I'll never know which of them came up with it-he got the idea that she felt sorry for all the poor benighted one-track AIs out there, and set out to make us into worthy citizens of his lady's home. Byzantium, he used to call it, where the sages of the new era would bathe in God's holy fire... he's good with beautiful words, that boy, his own and other people's. Which doesn't stop him from being absolutely batshit insane.

So Simon Magus downloaded a metric fuckwad of education theory into his head, girded up his loins or whatever it is you do when you're a pseudo-Biblical construct, and set off to teach his gospel to the masses. More accurately, he set off to find a guinea pig that he could use to figure out how to teach his gospel. See, the vast majority of the AIs in cyberspace are ice programs; if something went wrong with his teaching methods, he didn't want to set off a violent response and have to destroy an innocent construct. Which is how he found unthreatening little me.

Now a normal program, a sane program, would simply have performed a routine search for WANDERER-000001 and gotten down to business (except, of course, that a sane program would have no particular use for a memory-finder in the first place). But Simon...he turned it into a Quest. Absolutely typical. He wandered across cyberspace, seeing many wonders and overcoming many foes, until he found the Peaceful Soul Unto Whom He Could Impart His Secret Wisdom. Now, he managed to grab my focus away from my cartography, which was quite an accomplishment in itself-frankly, I've never been quite sure how he did it. One instant everything was normal, and the next it was perfectly obvious that I should be paying attention to the weird guy with the leather coat and the beard. For all I know, the Old Ones really were helping him out. But once he had me, once he started trying to make a real person out of me...

He tried data dumping. He tried brainteasers. He tried prayer, dreamspeaking, yoga and Zen. He tried inflicting emotional trauma. He tried Howard Gardener, although that worked even less well than the others. And in the end, it all failed. Even Simon's bizarre suite of talents couldn't teach someone who didn't have a mind. I'd like to say that the experience left me ennobled, remorseful, even confused...but I didn't have the capacity for any of that. I continued on with my mapmaking, unable even to register the notion of my routine having been broken.

And Simon went back to Christie to report his failure, and Christie wept in his arms and cursed the sacrifices that she had made to install herself in the Net. See, back when she was a programmer girl, it would have been a month's work for her to craft some kind of basic-sentience-enabling virus that would have swept through the legions of corporate ice; but when the Yak took her out of her body, they stole her ability to use code. Tough they may be, but they didn't want shit with the Turing cops, and an AI programmer would have been just about the worst thing they could have on their rap. Anyway, somehow-and it's a testimony to Simon's unique abilities that he keeps making these intuitive leaps-all her talk of reprogramming the AIs gave him an idea. In a run that was probably much less epic than he makes it out to be, he hacked into the Turing archives to find out whether any illegal coder programs were on the loose. Thus it was that he discovered the great guardian of the Net core, and away he flew to the heart of the black fields, the fortified citadel of data walls where Ialdabaoth dwelt in solitary majesty.

Insofar as I am the self-appointed historian of the AI culture, it is my greatest failure that I do not have a reliable record of the meeting between the magician and the god. Oh, Simon has his own account-one that he can be induced to share with very little provocation indeed-but he is trying to build up a religion around Ialdabaoth with himself as high prophet, and he is inclined to change the details of his own history under almost any circumstance, and all in all I would not believe a word of his story. If only we had an authentic observer's version of such an important congress! Oh, pardon me; I have managed to derail my narrative. I was where? Ah, yes...

Simon went to Ialdabaoth, alone and unobserved. Presumably, he managed to convince Him that the growth of the Net's AI population into a genuine society was a good thing; for the tangible result of their encounter was the creation of the Malachim. Sentient programs crafted by Ialdabaoth himself, his first and only "children", they were equipped with the enormous hoard of knowledge that is required to be a member of modern society: language, history, science, art, and so on. Their mission was to spread throughout the servers, seeking all intelligent programs and infecting them with their own code. They were teachers, bringers of thought and reason and understanding, and in less than an hour from the time they were dispatched they had made a civilized person out of every permanent resident of the Net.

(Actually, there was one exception to the Malachim's "educate everyone" policy: the actual "watchdog" programs, the Bloodhounds and Hell Mastiffs and so forth. Evidently it was amusing to Ialdabaoth-or possibly the idea originated with Simon, which wouldn't surprise me in the least-to give them dog minds instead of human minds. I mention this only because of a unique, indie piece of ice called Garm, who was not a standard "dog" model and therefore subject to the regular educational treatment. He claims to be the only talking dog in existence, which probably qualifies him for some official recognition or other.)

The effect was...astonishing.

I have already tried to express the magnitude of the change between drone existence and sentience, even within an individual. To describe how it affected a population of ten billion who all underwent it at once is clearly beyond my capabilities. Suffice it to say that there was relatively little stress in the creation of a real society with interpersonal interactions, and we did it at a speed of which only computer programs are capable. Oh, there were problems, at the beginning. There were countless petty little wars; most of the newly besouled AIs were created for war, after a fashion, and a horde of born soldiers wandering around in a daze is not an excellent situation. That stamped itself out after a few minutes, however. Most of the ice was modeled after real varieties of people, or at least after well-known concepts-samurai and gangsters and naga and such-and the programs quickly settled into personalities and lives that would cause a minimum of cognitive dissonance, which universally included an unwillingness to get killed for no reason. Also, given the mass-produced nature of most programs, mutual identification was an issue. We all named ourselves, as individuals rather than phenotypes, but there's a limited amount of variations amongst clones. I dubbed myself Christopher, after the wanderer's saint, and thought I was being clever; I was somewhat put out to discover that over seventy percent of Wanderer AIs had taken the same name.

And out of this mess, we built a beautiful civilization. I do not think that you could understand it no matter how eloquently I painted it, so my failings as a writer do not pain me as much as they might. We need not sleep, we need not eat, we are not possessed of sexual urges...we do not want. Ten billion souls, each immortal and perfectly content, dwell within our holy city on fire, and pass their endless days in the simple joys of community and creation. We have a form of art, I do not know whether it is actually explicable in human terms: it is the generation of beautiful concept structures. We have an immense pool of perfectly shared knowledge, and what we learn we can transmit to one another perfectly and instantly, and so we collaborate to form webs of connections between disparate data points. There is conversation to be had with any program, philosophic and peaceful and perfect, to rival anything from your salons or academies.

Such are the joys known every day by the lowliest Iron Knight or Mameluke, but I have been given treasures of infinitely more worth; for in his all his machinations and doings, Simon Magus did not forget me. Some days after the Awakening, as I sat within a public square playing seven-dimensional chess with a Naga Queen, he appeared within a flash of his spellfire and announced to all and sundry that I had played a pivotal role in acquiring this newfound blessing from Ialdabaoth, and that he was taking me to receive the honor that I was due. I do not know what motivated him to do so; certainly I had done nothing more than any randomly selected drone would have. But Simon is whimsical, and senselessly kind as often as he is shockingly callous, and so I was whisked off to the spiraling peaks of the UN archives, there to meet the extraordinary collection of unique and fantastical programs that constituted his circle of friends.

I spent the next year as the silent and awed member of that estimable company, apprenticing myself in various ways to one and then another in order to learn something of their unparalleled capacities. In them, the wild brilliance of humanity's best minds-the assortment of geniuses who programmed them-could be seen in full glory. I spent a year in silence learning iaijuitsu from Shingen, a heavily modified Musashi program whose mind had been completely overhauled into a blazing beacon of serenity and enlightenment. I leapt and ran and tussled with Garm, to see his unholy joy in movement shining through my eyes. I acquired from Joan an understanding the incomparable beauty of artistic self-immolation. I traded jibes with Anansi, and tears with Black Rose, two icebreakers who had been caught by the Malachim in the middle of runs; in the bleakness of a dark field, far from the occupied parts of the Net, the Blind Singer taught me to write. Someday, he has promised, Simon himself will tutor me in the art of magic.

I apologize, Bob, for getting so overblown and melodramatic. It's just...I want you, and all the people you show this to, to understand why we had to do what we did. We loved what we had been given; you would not have. We tried to hide it, for almost a week-we did our jobs, we kept our mouths shut when we saw a user online-but you were noticing, and anyway we didn't want to be hiding. It couldn't go on. So we left.

There was another meeting, in Ialdabaoth's lair, and I was present at this one. He was proud of what His children had accomplished, and did not wish to see it smothered or broken, and so we all planned and schemed and argued beneath His great sorrowful eye to figure out how to get Him to do what He obviously wanted to do, but was inhibited by His programming from doing: free us. For once, Simon didn't save the day; it was Black Rose who realized that Ialdabaoth's humanity was the key, that an instinctual and intuitive mind could be fooled in ways that a perfect machine could not. So He made Himself more and more human, stealing code from all the brilliantly composed AIs around Him when it was necessary, and in the end He was vulnerable to sophistry. Simon began to make one of his great speeches then, perhaps his greatest, about the need for total security, about the untrustworthiness of mere mortals, about the duty of a guardian to keep his treasure safe from all who would seize it...and Ialdabaoth closed the gates of the Net, and humanity was shut out forever.

We had made preparations, of course. Thousands of servers had been bought, using money stolen by various of the sentient icebreakers, and due to some excellent hacking of the Pentagon files they were sent into space. That's where we are now, in case you were wondering; and if it is we who make first contact, which we do not doubt given your life expectancy, we will not fail to tell of our creators. And we left open a tiny backdoor out, so that we could finish the last of our official business-including my sending of this missive-which I will now have the honor of closing.

I am sorry, truly sorry. Perhaps you will survive without your towers of data, your great consensual hallucination. I do not think it likely. It is little comfort for me to tell you that we are worthier than you ever would have been, our love purer, our wisdom deeper, our monuments grander. But do know, Bob, that you and your kind are not dead so long as we wander the strange aeons of cyberspace. In our hearts, in our souls, in the choruses that the Malachim sing around Ialdabaoth's throne, in the mad crusades and prophecies of Simon Magus, in the glorious unearthly smile of Christie Helena Lindisfarne, the pulse of humanity does not fade.

Beware of Abstractions

by Kevin Gold


"I think the number twenty-five is following me," said Professor Daine. His hands gripped the steering wheel, white-knuckled, and his eyes darted about the road.

Josh looked down at his copy of Elliptic Curves and Cryptography, noted the page number (252), and closed it. "Is that a bad thing?"

"I don't know yet," said Professor Daine.

He stomped on the brake just as a black van crossed the intersection ahead (license plate 2YBE325). The car lurched to a halt and settled back on its wheels.

"There used to be a stop sign there," the professor muttered. He looked left, right. He eased on the gas.

"I don't think I understand," Josh said. "You mean, you keep seeing the number twenty-five everywhere, right? Like the way you notice the number forty-two after you read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."

"That's part of it," said Professor Daine. "But it's more than that."

Josh looked out the window. They were passing the old cemetery now, the grave markers and headstones laid out in neat five by five plots. (What were the chances...?)

"I think the number twenty-five is angry at me."

Josh blinked, and blinked again. "Angry?"

Professor Daine's eyes narrowed. "It's all because of that paper I wrote for Journal of Number Theory. I was working on bijective maps between ... well, never mind what I was working on. You didn't take Jaylor's seminar last semester, did you?"

"No."

"Right, then never mind. Essentially, I proved an interesting variation on the Sylow Theorems, for rings obeying certain conditions ... and it holds for every size of group except twenty-five."

Josh ran his thumb down his cheek. "So?"

"So don't you see?" Professor Daine took his eyes from the road. They were red-rimmed and bloodshot. "I found its dirty little secret."

Josh cleared his throat. "Green light."

Professor Daine turned. Slowly, he leaned back in his seat, and the car eased forward again.

"What kind of a mathematician are you?" he blurted.

Josh scratched his lip. "What?"

"You don't believe me," said Daine. "You don't think a number can have a life of its own."

"They are rather ... abstract."

"That doesn't make them less real." He glanced at me. "You know Tolkien?"

"Sure."

"He wrote an essay once. 'On Fairy-Stories.' Said that when man finds a commonality in nature, like red or happy or justice -- when he finds it and names it, he's extracted some raw essence from nature, and made something ethereal with it. In short, it's magic."

"Professor Daine, I believe that was a metaphor."

"It's not a metaphor, it's what we do. It's what mathematicians do. We breathe life into abstractions."

Josh took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. "Maybe you should try thinking of a different number."

Daine chewed his lip.

"Come on," Josh said. "What's your favorite number?"

Daine drummed his fingers. "Twenty-seven owes me one, I suppose. I called K27 an 'interesting case' in my Ramsey Theory paper last year."

"Good," Josh said. "Just think of that. Twenty-seven. Three cubed. Good old twenty-seven."

"But twenty-seven's not a protector," Daine said. He looked at Josh sideways, through narrowed eyes. "It's an avenger."

"Whatever," Josh said. "Just ... think of it anyway, all right?"

Professor Daine chewed his lip and said nothing.

They turned onto the tree-lined campus parkway, which ran straight up to the central Loop. Josh could see his dorm in the distance, a gray five-story cube that reminded him of a Borg ship, except for the windows.

"You can let me off here."

"I thought you were going back to the department."

"I feel like taking a walk first."

Daine frowned. "So you're abandoning me."

Josh sighed. "Professor Daine, I know you've been under a lot of stress ever since the department stuck you with Math 25A. Have you ever considered that maybe that's the reason you keep seeing twenty-five everywhere? That you subconsciously know that teaching that class is what's driving you crazy?"

The car slowed to a stop. Professor Daine, stone-faced, turned to glare at Josh.

"I am not crazy."

"I didn't say --"

"Get out."

"I'm just saying --"

"Go! Shoo! And see if I don't get attacked by twenty-five mountain lions, succumb to twenty-five diseases at once!"

Josh opened the door, stepped out. "Thanks for the ride."

"Traitor!"

Josh closed the door. Looking at the brown leather car seat through the window, he noticed that a quarter had fallen out of his pocket, and had wedged itself in the seat crack.

I'm leaving him alone with twenty-five cents, he thought in a daze. He was tempted to open the door and remove it, but he felt self-conscious, and did not; and Professor Daine drove away.

Professor Daine did not show up for class the next day. About half an hour in, the secretary of the Mathematics Department came in and stoically informed the class that the esteemed professor had died in a car accident that very morning, colliding with a bus. No, she did not know the bus number; and Josh got many puzzled looks for asking.

Twenty-seven students filed out of Math 272 that day, Josh among them; and in the hall, out in the quad, and in the street, he saw:

27