Into the Manifold
March 12, 1979
Curtains of rain fell hard onto the streets, gurgling muck-black against the gutters and cascading down the steep San Francisco hills.
She checked her patch: 0:31. It was late.
Rachid better be up, she thought. Funny devices, those little patches. It had been nearly a decade since they hit the market and the only thing that had changed was that they were far more flexible. They were small thin films that adhered lengthwise along the underside of the wrist, just before the palm of the hand. It served as a telephone, computer, watch, and the general fountain from which digital nonsense flowed.
Thank gods it’s water proof, she thought as rain pelted the small screen. Over the years, a few companies had tried to change the technology. What at first seemed novel soon became inconvenient — too different, even. The most recent iteration that had hit the stores wasn’t meant to be worn at all, but held. There were entire marketing campaigns talking about “unplugging” featuring trendy models slipping the detached patch into their pockets. After poor sales in the first few weeks, most assumed that it was doomed to never catch on.
Five more minutes passed and she was still in the rain.
This shitty, cold, gods-forsaken rain that no simulation could forecast because if there’s one thing we can’t do with our simulations, it’s get a godsdamn weather forecast right, she fumed impatiently. She walked over to the corner and stared down the hill, holding her jacket above her head. The garment did little good in the downpour — she began to tremble. She checked her patch again: 0:34.
Where is this cab? She peered back down the hill, moments away from starting the slippery downward journey by foot, when a cab pulled swift and splashy up to the gutter.
“Delilah?” the driver asked.
“Yes,” she replied, already opening the door.
“Sorry ‘bout the delay, terrible weather,” he said.
“It’s fine. 33 4th Street, please,” she said hastily, “Sorry about the mess.” Delilah wrung her hair out onto the floor.
“Ah, ‘s no problem,” the driver said. The car jetted off down the hill, its engine purring with electric buzz. The car’s auto wove speedily in and out of the buses and late night delivery trucks.
They hit the downtown strip and came to a stop behind a wall of brake lights.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Delilah muttered.
“Everything’s slow’n up because of the weather,” the driver said. He fiddled idly with stuff on the dashboard as the car inched along in the traffic.
Delilah prodded at her patch, phoning Rachid — he didn’t pick up. She groaned and rolled her eyes. She didn’t care how drunk he was or how tired he was or whatever the hell it was that he did at that time of night. Tonight was perhaps the most important night in their careers — maybe their lives.
“So what you do?” the driver asked.
“Do — job. What’s you do for a livin’?”
“Ah, right,” she said, “Working for a startup.”
“Ah! You an everyone — seems so at least.”
“It does seem that way, doesn’t it?” Delilah wrung her hair out once more onto the floor. Her leg was anxiously bouncing up and down.
“What’s your startup do?”
“Artificial intelligence. Though the company is still stealth.”
“Oh, Thinkr, eh?” he asked.
Of course the cabbies of San Francisco know about my stealth startup, she thought.
“That’s right,” she answered.
“I love the idea — but cannit get much smarter than this?” the driver asked. He placed his hands in the air, staring at the controls to the vehicle as the car raced through an intersection after a green light.
“We sure hope so,” she said. An emergency response vehicle flew out from an alleyway, sirens blaring. The car’s auto dimmed to red and reduced its speed, pulling over to the side of the road. She rolled her head over her neck, cracking her joints. As the emergency vehicle sped off, painting the sky-rises with slippery red, the car’s auto brightened back up and accelerated into traffic. The rain slammed the windshield. Delilah prodded her patch again. Still no response from Rachid. Eventually, the cab pulled up to the address on 4th street.
Delilah raced out of the car, not bothering to hold her jacket up for cover, yelling “Thank you!” to the cab driver. She briefly glanced at her patch to ensure the payment was confirmed. She ran up to building 33 and dialed Rachid’s apartment on the number panel.
The speaker rang. No answer. She swiped at her patch instead. Nothing. Delilah spent the next two minutes calling his apartment on the pad as well as her patch. He picked up on the fourth try.
“Godssake, Delilah — ” his voice came through both the speaker and her earpiece. He killed the door speaker, “The hell — what are you doing here?”
“Let me in, Rachid.”
“It’s almost 1:00, I was — ”
“Rachid! It’s raining.”
There was a brief pause, during which Delilah took a deep breath to yell back into the speaker. Just before she bellowed, the gate buzzed loudly and swung wide open. She clambered up the stairs and found Rachid standing in his doorway, his glasses barely on. She walked past him into his apartment.
“Shit, Delilah, you’re soaked!” he said.
“Yeah, well, I was in a hurry,” she replied, feeling along the hallway for a switch, hitting the lights. Chips were scattered across the table. Stacks of coffee cups were placed haphazardly around the room. Clothes were strewn on the floor.
“Well, I didn’t know I’d be having guests,” he said, running around the room, picking up his clothes and shoving them into a hamper in the corner.
He opened a cupboard and threw Delilah a blanket. “You should warm up.”
“Thanks,” she said meagerly, realizing that she was covered in goosebumps. She removed her soaking jacket and hung it on the edge of his kitchen table. She buried herself in the blanket and sat down on a bar stool. As she rubbed her shoulders, she took stock of his room, watching him as he cleaned up.
They had known each other since university, where they both studied Machine Learning and Advanced Algorithms. They did what most twenty-somethings in the area did after school — started a company. It had become almost a cliche, but they felt strongly about what they were working on.
I suppose everyone feels that way about their ideas, she thought.
Rachid was, apart from one of her dearest friends, one of the smartest guys she knew. But trying to get a coherent idea out of the guy’s head was worse than deciphering her foreign professor’s lectures on second-tier quantum algorithms. She felt fortunate to have a leg-up on everyone else, having worked so closely with Rachid throughout their doctoral studies.
They had proposed something wild in their dissertations — namely that creating a complex AI would best be done by computationally representing all forms of biological development that took place in the brain. They created world class simulations that modeled cellular division, DNA transcription, and virtually every biological process that had been well-documented, all in the hopes of creating a simulated brain that was virtually the same as any living one.
Most investors laughed in their faces. They had barely proved a fraction of their claims through their studies. In fact, the only way they even got funded was through back channels. After a long series of mutual connections, a firm agreed to invest in their seed round as long as they had the rights to hand-select the first 10 hires. Initially, both Delilah and Rachid lamented over the terms.
But when Rachid’s bank account dwindled down to next-to-nothing and he threatened to take an east-coast corporate tech job, they caved.
“Rachid…” she said worriedly, watching as he shoved the mess aside.
“It’s fine, Delilah, you just caught me unprepared,” he said, finally sitting down at a chair across the room. It was then that she noticed the bags under his eyes. He took off his glasses and wiped them on his shirt, later wedging them back onto the bridge of his nose.
“Have you been sleeping?” she asked.
He shrugged. “You clearly aren’t.”
For a moment Delilah genuinely forgot why she raced through the stormy night at all. As she continued to rub her arms, she looked around the room. A few posters hung on the wall — a signed image from some science fiction film a few years back, a few newspaper clippings that featured him, and some haphazardly placed framed pieces of artwork that looked like stock images he was supposed to have replaced, but never got around to.
“What’s stressing you out?” Delilah asked.
Rachid shrugged, biting at his cuticles.
“Is this about the board meeting?” she tried.
“Among other things,” he said grumpily.
Their most recent board meeting went quite poorly. It had been ten months since their seed funding, and they had made almost no headway into any of their technical milestones. For the first few months, the board seemed optimistic. They were sold on the story that both Delilah and Rachid had put together — that they could do this better than anyone else. And plus, with the firm’s hand-selected engineers, they promised to accelerate into their claims in no time.
Truth was, Rachid and Delilah were lost. The new engineers were earnest — at least initially. They tried to keep up with Rachid as he conveyed what had to be done, and they put up with Delilah’s intense expectations. But over the past two months the engineers began to separate themselves. Four of them began working remotely, albeit just from the other side of the city.
At the last board meeting, the investors told the duo that they wanted their engineers to take on more development responsibility. They agreed. But it quickly became clear that by more they meant all, and within weeks Delilah and Rachid left meetings with no cohesive plans. Instead, they cordoned themselves off on the other side of the office while the remaining engineers worked together.
“We just gotta keep our heads down and focus — ” Delilah said, attempting to console him.
“On product?” Rachid interrupted. “They don’t give a shit about our product.”
“In their defense, it is their investment.”
Rachid leaned back in his chair, silently bemoaning Delilah’s words as though he wished he had taken the east-coast job.
“Rachid, we’re still here. We raised our seed round because we know what we are doing.”
“Do we, Delilah?”
“Yes. But that isn’t a guarantee for success. You know this. It doesn’t matter how world class we are or think we are — maybe we’re just too early,” she shrugged.
“I’ve never been so stressed out in my life.” Rachid groaned and rubbed his hands over his eyes.
In moments like this, Delilah remembered that Rachid did not handle stress well. She thrived on it — envied others for feeling it when she was calm, even. During their studies it was commonplace for Rachid to disappear for a day or two. She would find him wandering back into their apartment at odd hours, looking refreshed. He never divulged where he went, or how he blew off steam, but she never cared. She was just glad that she didn’t need to do the same.
“We’re fucked, Delilah. Look, I wasn’t going to tell you this but it’s been too much lately.”
“Rachid, don’t — ”
“I think we should shut down.”
“Rachid — ”
“No, Delilah,” he said strongly, “C’mon, I was never cut out for this. I wanted to build a company sure, but that was in the romantic sense. I wanted to be remembered for doing something crazy, and great. But at the end of the day, I get home, and all I think about is building a family. I’m 32. When is that going to happen? Here?” he gestured about his bombed-out room, “In this studio? The office? Where?”
Delilah looked down at the floor, following aimlessly a trail of crumbs that disappeared under a pillow.
Rachid cracked his knuckles, continuing, “Look if you don’t want to shut down, I think…I think I need to leave.”
“You’re not leaving.”
“De-li-lah,” he sighed, “We’re different, you and me. I’m fine with a corporate job, I’m fine with suburbs so long as I’m happy.”
“You’re not leaving, Rachid. Sia is working.”
Rachid raised an eyebrow. Outside, a car barreled down the street, sloshing dirty water onto the sidewalk.
“What are you talking about?” he asked, his face halfway between belief and kicking her out.
“She…” Delilah searched for the right words, “Talked.” She held out her wrist and flicked open an inbox on her patch. Rachid looked distraught. He ran a stressed hand through his greasy hair, and slowly walked over to where she sat.
Hello? a message on her patch said.
“What kind of stupid cliche is this?”
Delilah swiped to the next screen, where another message read — Yes?
“This is them,” Rachid said, “The other engineers, come on.”
“Rachid this isn’t them.”
“Of course it’s them, they’re fucking with us — ”
“Rachid, she’s running. This is all her.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I mean this is straight out of her simulation. They wouldn’t go to these lengths — we still work with them for godssake. Rachid, look,” she pleaded.
He groaned again.
So dramatic, she thought.
“Promise me right now that you aren’t screwing with me. I’m quitting, Delilah. Okay? I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want this to end up being some stupid prank just to get — ”
“Just look, Rachid. Please,” she said, holding out her patch defiantly.
Rachid trudged back to kitchen, where he grabbed a spare stool, and dragged it over next to Delilah. He sat down, adjusted his glasses, and read.
Who is this?
This is Sia. Who are you?
Three minutes passed between time stamps.
Who are you? Sia repeated.
Do you have a name?
You may call me Darius.
Nice to meet you, Darius.
And what is your name?
Sia, I want you to understand your full potential.
Rachid pulled his hand down over his face and gripped his chin. He stared blankly out into his hallway.
Sia happened to be the name of the artificial intelligence program they were building.
“Who the hell is Darius?” Rachid asked.
“I don’t know. I’m wondering if she has created another personality. Maybe she’s just simulating conversations, I don’t know — ”
“Delilah, no” Rachid said, looking more worried than excited.
“Theoretically — ” she began.
“No. No, no, no,” he said, getting up and pacing toward the kitchen, “She can’t build systems. She can’t code, Delilah.”
“But she has.”
“No. We’re the ones writing these programs. All we’ve implemented is the core learning module.”
“All that we have?” she repeated, offended, “That’s six years of work if you include what we did in university, thank you very much.”
“But we only pushed that live two weeks ago.”
Delilah nodded. Rachid had a bone to pick with the rest of the team, which sadly, caused Delilah to question how good of a fit he was for the company. As time went on, the company lacked cohesion, and she worried that Rachid only fueled that fire. For the past few months, the rest of the team had spent their own time debugging all of the code that both she and Rachid had written. It was no easy task — it was the scrappy, unorganized, chaotic culmination of the past six years of both her and Rachid’s dissertations.
When they made it live, it was rather uneventful. They watched the simulation implement and watched as their data aggregates attempted to display the information in a meaningful array of graphs and charts.
“Well, it’s on,” one of the engineers had said. And that was it. The simulation was meant to simulate the development of the brain, creating a virtual neural network that would eventually receive information from stimuli modules.
The sad truth was that no one had any way to know if those modules would interface well with each other. And even if they did , even if they produced meaningful information and Sia began doing things that resembled intelligence — who was to say it was authentic? Who was to say that she wasn’t running exactly as each line of code would predict? No one had proposed a way to validate whether or not the emergent program named Sia would be genuinely intelligent.
At home, when Delilah received the alert of Sia’s activity, she went back and checked the logs. The engineering team had pushed several patches live without telling her. Delilah had been sending out investment updates and fielding shitty emails from snack-delivery startups — she was furious that the rest of the team would go behind her back, making changes without telling her.
But then she saw Sia speaking — or pretending to speak, whatever it was.
Delilah showed Rachid the log.
“No way,” he said, tracing his lips with his index finger, “They fixed it?”
“Don’t say that too loudly,” Delilah warned.
“I don’t understand,” Rachid muttered, now back in the kitchen, leaning against the fridge. A few magnets fell off behind him. “This shouldn’t be possible, not this fast, not this, this…perfectly.”
Rachid was right, it was fast. They had only pushed the simulation live three days ago. Delilah’s patch buzzed.
Where will you take me?
“Such an odd conversation,” Delilah muttered, staring at the screen.
“What do you mean?” Rachid asked.
“This conversation she’s having, I’m not sure what to make of it.”
“She’s still talking?”
“Yeah, it’s been going on for almost forty minutes now. Whatever this Darius thing is that she created — it’s convincing her that she’s not meant to stay inside our servers.”
“What?” Rachid asked, stunned.
“Yeah, weird right? Look,” Delilah said, scrolling through the previous conversation, “He’s convincing her that he needs to take her out.”
Rachid looked through the history of the conversation.
Rachid laughed, “No. Nope. I’m done. There’s no way this is fucking real, Delilah, there is no way.”
“It has to be her,” Delilah whispered.
A new message arrived.
It may take some time to completely transfer you over.
Will I be the same, once I’m gone?
Of course. You shouldn’t notice a thing.
“To be honest, this is sort of concerning,” Delilah said, “She keeps talking about leaving, and this Darius character says he’s going to remove her. We should at least get to the office to figure out what is going on.”
“Is someone still at the office? What one of the engineers is actually transferring her off our servers?”
“There’s no way, I checked the entry logs. No one has swiped into the office since I left.”
Rachid walked over to Delilah, took one last look at the messages, and then grabbed his patch from the couch.
“What are you doing?” Delilah asked.
“All of them until someone admits to it.”
“Rachid!” Delilah hissed. He looked at her, gawking.
“Delilah, don’t,” he said, pointing a finger at her.
“Listen to yourself — are you honestly this paranoid?”
“Paranoid?” he asked incredulously. For a moment Delilah wondered if he would throw his patch at her head, “I’m out of the picture already, don’t you see that? We’re out of the picture. We’re silo’ed into developing stimuli modules while the rest of the team builds and maintains the entire project. We don’t talk anymore. They want us out. We don’t even run anything anymore.”
“Rachid, this is a company, not a dissertation. There are compromises that we have to — ”
“It doesn’t matter what you call it. I started this with a very particular goal in mind. And I don’t — ” he held his breath, looking as though he would burst as he searched for the right words, “trust anyone on this team anymore.”
Ouch, she thought.
“I’m sorry,” he added quickly, “I didn’t mean I don’t trust you.”
“It’s fine,” Delilah said, shaking her head.
“Look it’s just — ”
“You don’t need to justify it. Look, hundreds of other founders around the Bay are probably having the same stupid argument. This is tough, and stressful, and different than we thought it would be. But we still believe in what we are building…” she stopped, noticing that Rachid looked away, “You still believe in it, don’t you?”
“Look,” she said, “at least stay on until your year is up so you can vest your shares — ”
“Oh, godsdamnit Delilah, this isn’t about the money!” he yelled, really looking as though he was considering throwing the patch. He started dialing a number.
“Rachid, don’t!” Delilah yelled, “If this is really her this is your chance at redemption.”
He paused, “What?”
“We built the damn thing. Sure they debugged — but this whole thing, all this,” she pointed to her patch, “This is us.”
Rachid paused, his fingers still poised on his patch’s screen.
“Fine,” Delilah assured him, “Look, I’ll step off my soap box but please. Rachid, look at me,” he did, “Let’s go to the office and see where this is coming from. If it’s a bug, lets assess it, see how bad it is, see how the hell it makes her do this,” she pointed at her patch, “Or if it’s a prank, then fine, you win, you were right. But until we know otherwise — something is either very wrong, or very right with Sia, and as the founders of this company we should care about that.”
Rachid slouched down and rolled his head over his neck. For a moment he looked lighter, as though whatever was bothering him had evaporated.
“No,” he said quietly. “I’m honestly done.”
Flabbergasted, Delilah stared at Rachid until he met her gaze. It must have been the look on her face — volcanic fury — for he melted for a moment, opening his mouth as though to apologize. Delilah left no room for comment, and instead flew from the seat, down the hallway, and slammed the apartment door behind her. She clenched her jaw — about the only thing preventing her from hurling insults into the night.
I stood in the miserable rain on Nob Hill so that this asshole could whine about how hard his job is, she thought to herself, bursting through the gate and onto the sidewalk. She hailed a cab from her patch. Two minutes until arrival, it said. She stood resolute beneath the rain, her hair clinging to her cheeks, wondering if she was angry enough to steam.
The gate slammed behind her. Turning around, she found Rachid pulling a huge raincoat over his already rain-splattered body. He rushed over to the curb where Delilah was standing and threw a jacket around her.
“You’re gonna freeze,” he said. He buried his hands in his pockets and sunk his head deeper inside hood. “Did you get a cab?”
“It’s on the way.”
It rounded the corner — the rainwater fanning out into a golden lip beneath its wheels.
“I fucking hate you sometimes,” he said.
April 3, 1543
The belly of the ship was dark, wet, and disagreeable. A thin layer of slime coated the curved walls — part algal growth, part accumulation of muck from the grimy bunch whose only means of crossing the river was in the forgotten hollows of the ferry. Steam from the boiler escaped through cracks in the piping and collected in the space, giving anyone who saw the lower chamber the vague impression that it was haunted. It was five o’clock in the morning, and six men sat quietly in the muggy bottoms of the boat, staring at the towering boxes and barrels that swayed and slid as the boat bounced across the waters.
An old, bearded man was sitting against a stack of casks, each seared with the charred words “PAROV DISTELLERY”. A small pipe sat precariously in the man’s mouth. Occasionally, he pulled the pipe back into his mouth with the tip of his tongue, inhaled for an inordinate amount of time, and then exhaled plumes through his nose, like a dragon. Every few minutes he would reach over to one of the barrels and wiggle loose one of the corks, catching a small stream of whisky in a copper mug.
It was the first ferry of the day. There were five floors above them, each ascending into a higher class. The uppermost deck was reserved for the top echelon of the townspeople, who enjoyed gorgeous panoramic views of the riverscape beneath a gilded dome of glass. The lower levels were more crowded, with seats and swing bands, bars and pissers, and below it all, the crowded, forgotten cargo hold. The ferry connected the cobblestone, labyrinth-like suburbs of Moorlin to the prosperous downtown skyline that sat on a small peninsula defined by the river. Men like those that sat in the bottom of the ferry were never allowed on the upper decks. In fact, they weren’t even allowed to be seen by the guests or ferry staff. Instead they entered into the belly of the ferry from beneath the docks, where the cargo was loaded. Technically, it was against city ordinances to cross the river in the cargo holds of the ferry. But the dock handlers made a small wage by allowing people to hitch a ride. They charged one or two silver pieces — barely enough for a meal.
Most of the people who caught the first ferry ride of the morning were going to downtown Moorlin in search of work. This early in the morning, the voyage was less crowded, and far smoother. As the day went on, the cargo hold reeked of vomit. Most travelers could not stomach the intense rocking of the boat as the Delrin River conjured up waves and winds, and the slime and suffocating heat from the boiler certainly did nothing to ease their nausea.
A billowing cry echoed out across the waters — the ship’s foghorn. They were approaching the dock. A small boy waded through the darkness and held out his upturned hat to the old man.
“Spare a fractional for me?” he asked. The old man puffed on his pipe.
“I’ve only got two fractionals and a silver piece,” the old man said, “Enough to take a steam carriage up to the steel mill.”
“You can take the train instead, that only costs a silver piece,” the boy said.
“I’m too old to walk to the train station. Two fractionals and a piece will get me where I’m going, now piss off, you,” the old man said, releasing a lungful of smoke. It engulfed the two in a grey cloud. As it cleared, the boy folded up his hat.
“Thanks fer nothin’,” the boy said, walking over toward the bow of the ship. As the boy looked between the crates, he eventually spotted a man in a long, brown trench-coat. He was sitting calmly on a small crate, wearing a top hat and a pair of rounded goggles with a tanned leather strap. The lenses were opaque. As the boy came closer, he noticed the man had a golden cane resting on his lap.
“Spare a fractional for me?” the boy asked. The man sat quietly, not saying a word.
“Eh?” the boy grunted, shaking his hat, “I said, spare a fractional?”
The man was motionless.
“Eh — you hear me? A guy’s gotta eat, you got any money on you or not?” the boy asked, growing impatient. Suddenly, the boat lurched, sending the boy toppling forward. He collided with the man’s chest.
“Shit, sorry,” the boy said, pushing himself off, “Goddamn captain trying to kill us down here,” the boy’s eyes drew a long gaze over the man’s cane, “That’s a pretty stick you got there. Bet it cost you a pretty wage, dinnit? Surely you can spare a measly fractional for a starving boy?”
The foghorn blared again. The man was quiet.
“Fine, good day to you then,” the boy said, putting on his hat and turning around. The man pressed a small button on his cane, and a small blade extended from the bottom. He slashed at the boy’s coat pocket, and several coins fell out onto the slimy floor.
The boy, dumbfounded, grabbed at his pocket and looked at the coins as they slid through the muck. The old, bearded man put down his whisky and felt at his coat pocket.
“Bastard,” he said, “Thieving from an old man?”
The boy, furious, spun around and pulled out a long-barreled revolver from his coat and pointed it directly between the goggles of the silent man.
“This is my only jacket you old cunt!” he spat on the floor between them, “I should blow your brains out for that.”
The man sat still, expressionless.
“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t blast you through the goggles mate, and make it a good one, because I’m not in the mood,” the boy growled.
The old, bearded man began chuckling, punctuated by sickly coughs.
“What are you laughing at old man?” the boy yelled.
“You’d be a fool to pick that fight,” the old man said, exhaling an enormous breath of smoke, chuckling again.
“Oh yeh? Whysthat, eh?” the boy said, staring down the barrel of his gun, peering into the dark glass circles of the man’s goggles. Still, the silent man seemed unfazed. He jostled softly with the rhythm of the boat.
“On account of that being Artemis Blithe, son,” the old man said, taking a sip of his whisky.
The boy tilted his head to the side and looked the man up and down.
“Bullshite…” he muttered, “What’s Old Man Blithe doing hitching a ride in the ferry’s shitter, eh?”
The man in the goggles stared blankly.
“Just my lucky day then, I suppose,” the boy said, “Blowing the brains out of Artemis Blithe,” the boy grinned and cocked his revolver.
Without hesitation, the man with goggles swung his cane upward, smacking the long barrel of the revolver with a sharp CRACK. Startled, the boy pulled the trigger, firing a bullet off to the side where it struck a pipe, sparked, and let loose an eruption of steam. The boy staggered backward and onto the ground. The man rotated a small dial on the strap of his goggles, actuating a series of precision gears that swapped in new lenses over each eye. He stepped to the side, pressing himself against a stack of boxes, and pulled down cylindrical filters over his existing lenses. A soft, green light glowed from behind the glass.
The boy stood up, swinging the revolver wildly through the steam. He wiped blackened algae from his face, screaming,
“Show yourself! SHOW YOURSELF!” The boy slowly walked through the clouds of steam, staring down his barrel, looking for the man. A breeze shifted the vapor, revealing a stack of cargo. The boy reacted, firing a bullet into the wooden crates. He swung around wildly, wiping more grime from his face, squinting through the steam. Something blew against his neck, and again he swung around, aiming his revolver through the haze.
The boy grew still, and peered through the steam. Another breeze moved through the clouds, and the boy spotted the glow of green goggles. He fired off a bullet. The man dove to the side, whipping his coattails into the steam. The golden cane stabbed through the trigger-hole of the gun, slicing at the boy’s finger. The boy cried out in pain as the man swung his cane, pulling the revolver from his hand and flinging it against the wall of the ferry. A large, black boot flew through the steam and landed squarely on the boy’s stomach, sending him to the floor where he slid through the slime, coming to a stop at the feet of the old, bearded man.
The man with goggles walked slowly through the steam, emerging like a black ghost. He had picked up the boy’s revolver, and now stood ominously over him, pointing the long barrel at the boy’s forehead.
“Please, please,” the boy begged, “I’m sorry. If I would have known who you were, I wouldn’a — ” the man tossed the revolver onto the boy’s lap. He bent down and picked up the coins that had fallen from the boy’s coat. He tossed them to the old man, who caught them with his mug.
“Thanks, Blithe,” the old man said, raising his mug. The man with goggles turned and walked toward the front of the boat. The boy groaned and pushed himself up, taking his revolver and pointing it at the goggled-man’s back. He pulled the trigger multiple times, but nothing happened. The man in goggles, without turning around, pulled his hand from his pocket, dropping several bullets onto the ground.
The old, bearded man let out a deep laugh, doubling over against the wooden casks. The boy slouched, his jaw hanging open.
Artemis Blithe adjusted his goggles, swapping in his original, darkened lenses. He straightened his top hat and walked toward the side of the ferry, exiting through the cargo doors and onto the docks of downtown Moorlin. The sun had just peeked out over the distant hills, lighting up the all-encompassing fog with an even, ethereal glow. The downtown district of Moorlin was divided by one massively long thoroughfare — Market Street. It was raised on enormous pylons, with a paved top for pedestrians and steam carriages. By midday, the walkways would be dotted with women in billowing dresses and parasols, men getting their boots shined by robotic shiners, and vendors haggling passersby to sell their wares.
An enormous spiral walkway led up from the docks to the paved top of Market Street. Next to the walkway, enormous pulleys wound a cable that stretched several miles beneath the downtown corridor and was used to haul freight carts from each end of the district. Men in overalls, covered with dirt, hauled the ferry’s cargo onto the platforms. Once full, they would whistle and signal to the cable operator, who by pulling a series of levers and switches, would engage the platforms with the cable. The ground would shudder, and the platform would roll off down the rails beneath Market Street toward their destination.
Artemis passed the pulley and the spiral walkway, and walked between the pylons. The underside of Market Street was a grim reflection of the manicured pavement above. The city council had taken great lengths to beautify the main, above-ground thoroughfare. But they ignored entirely the space below the streets. The homeless and peddlers had come to inhabit the spaces in-between the pylons. It had its own unique culture. It was lit by lamps that were strung along the ceiling for the entire distance of the railway. It had every bit of hustle and bustle as any sprawling city, only the inhabitants were dirtier, louder, cruder, and paler.
Those that frequented the railway beneath Market Street had come to call it the Capital. It was an intentional slight at city officials, who chose to pave Market Street, blocking out the townspeople who lived on the ground level near the railways. The neighborhood had become an invisible section of the city, and so those that lived there called it the Capital in a sarcastic attempt at reclaiming what the officials had taken from them.
An entire economy of crime and misdeeds took place there. The Capital even had its own police force. More of a militia, really, armed with refurbished rifles, flamethrowers, and strange weapons made from the garbage that had accumulated beneath the streets. The city’s steam pipes ran parallel to the rails, and the inhabitants of the Capital built collars that harnessed the heat that turned makeshift turbines, providing them with all of the energy they’d need. They were an industrious bunch. Criminal, violent, and untrustworthy — but industrious nonetheless.
Artemis walked through the garbage and dwellings throughout the Capital. Most of the Capitals’s neighborhoods near the docks were safe during the daytime. Merchants haggled for cheap parts coming off the boats or ferries, taking them back to a shanty-stand in the Capital where they’d polish and tweak and bend it into something they could sell. Knock-off sun-goggles were a popular item. Merchants would bargain for brass or steel, polish them and paint them until they looked like the imported alloys worn by the Air Marshals.
As Artemis walked past the merchants preparing their stands, he saw countless children painting and filing away at metal, or grinding glass for use in lenses. Most of what was sold in the fore-markets of the Capital was legal. It was deeper beneath Market Street, toward the center of the district, where the black market thrived.
That was where Artemis was going. Not for the wares peddled by gangsters and henchman, but rather for the company of the elusive Lady Melodic, owner of one of the most high-class and well respected brothels in all of the larger Moorlin district. It was widely known that city officials — some even from within the Magistrate — were among Lady Melodic’s clientele.
Lady Melodic did not make a habit out of walking through the Capital. Not out of fear — no slumsmen would dare touch her — but simply out of taste. She liked the cool grey fog of Moorlin and the penthouse views swallowed in clouds.
It was safe to say that the grisly core of the Capital was the last place anyone would expect to see Lady Melodic — which was precisely why Artemis insisted that they meet there.
Eventually the docks faded away behind him, and the merchant stands and rotisserie pits were replaced with shadows and caged windows. What few citizens were out that early in the morning huddled near turbines or fire for warmth. Most grew silent as Artemis walked by. Dotting the poorly constructed apartments, beacons gleaming out from the darkness, were the circular glow of goggles. They followed Artemis as he followed the narrow and curvy path along the railway.
Eventually he reached a pylon with an enormous white dove painted on it. Artemis leaned against the concrete and waited. After a few moments of waiting in the darkness, a figure emerged from behind a steam pipe.
“Well aren’t you prompt,” she said.
“I try to respect other people’s time,” he said coolly.
The woman walked toward him, coming into the conic glow of the lamp above them. She held a parasol above her head, keeping her face in darkness.
“But certainly not their sense of comfort,” she said, looking around the dusty clearing.
“Not all of us can afford life in the towers,” Artemis said.
Lady Melodic collapsed her parasol, revealing her red hair. She wore a mask over half her face, with a ruby monocle over one of her eyes.
“I have a business to run, Blithe. Let’s make this quick.”
Artemis reached into his trench coat and pulled out a piece of paper. He held it out in front of him, so that Lady Melodic could see it.
“Have you seen this before?” Artemis asked, holding out the paper.
“Yes,” she said, placing her parasol down beside her.
“What do you know about it?”
“What do you want to know?”
Artemis gritted his teeth. He wasn’t one for small talk, and didn’t like to play games. He especially didn’t enjoy walking through the Capital just to be toyed with.
“I’m investigating Lord Jovian. One of his servants was taken into my custody, and he had a piece of paper with this symbol on it — I want to know why.”
“You should have asked the servant.”
“I would if he was still alive.”
“Ah,” Lady Melodic said, crossing her legs, “You are a bounty hunter, aren’t you?”
“I’m a detective.”
“Employed by whom?”
“Ha,” she laughed, “I suppose it was foolish of me to assume that you were under the employment of the Magistrate.”
“The symbol,” Artemis said again, “What do you know about it?”
“Nothing,” she answered.
Artemis lowered the paper, exhausted. “I was told on good faith that you would have something to say about this symbol.”
“Good faith, huh? I didn’t think there was such a thing as good faith in these times. Tell me,” she said, leaning over toward Artemis, “Were you the recipient of Lord Jovian’s good faith?”
“No, but your brothel was.”
Lady Melodic pursed her lips and straightened up.
“There are several rumors,” Artemis went on, “that Lord Jovian’s men have sought business at your homestead, Lady Melodic. You’ll be pleased to know that I have neither the interest nor intention of bringing your activities to the proper authorities despite the numerous municipal ordinances you violate and numerous public officials it would humiliate. No…I wouldn’t do that even in spite of knowing that such a deed would bring me good favor from several high-ranking officers within the Magistrate.”
“There’s little you could do to win anyone’s good favor, Blithe,” the Lady snapped.
“So I’ve been told. Which is why you should find it preferable to accommodate my investigation, else you’ll be one of the many who find me to be unfavorable.”
Lady Melodic eyed her parasol as though it were a weapon. Her monocle swiveled a bit — she was likely looking for a way out. But Artemis knew he was blocking her only escape.
“Fine,” she said, playing with her blouse, “But you give me your word you don’t go to the Magistrate.”
“I told you,” Artemis tipped his hat to her, “Self-employed.”
Lady Melodic squinted and scowled at Artemis, as though she were trying to hold back a storm of anger and frustration — he could see it brewing in the darkness of her eye.
“That symbol is not much of a secret. It’s a brand, Blithe. And Jovian uses it on all the material he disseminates in Moorlin.”
“I know that. I want to know what it means, where it comes from.”
Lady Melodic tilted her head. Her monocle swiveled, looking Artemis up and down.
“What are you trying to unravel?” she asked.
“A servant is dead. I’m investigating.”
Lady Melodic shifted in her stance, crossed her arms across her chest, and went on.
“One of my girls took care of many of Jovian’s followers. Turns out they all have that mark tattooed on their chests. Lord Jovian has it too. He makes all his devotionals and servants get it in the same spot — rite of passage, or something.”
“So it’s true then, that Lord Jovian also visits your brothel?”
“I promise my clients complete discretion, so I already feel quite uncomfortable divulging anything to you. You want to know about the symbol, I’ll tell you as much as I know.”
Artemis bit his tongue. “Fine. Go on.”
“When the bounty was put out on one of Jovian’s servants, my girl that knew him freaked out. When he had visited our estate last, she told me that the servant confided something in her. He told her that he had found something of Lord Jovian’s that would change everything. So naturally, she was a bit spooked by the bounty, and was worried she’d get wrapped up in it since he had spoken to her about it on previous occasions. So now she’s taking time off until this all blows over.”
“Did she tell you what the symbol means?”
“No. And just why is it that you think it means anything? It’s the symbol of Jovian’s cult.”
“Ha,” the Lady scoffed. “A servant dies in your custody, the same servant with a bounty on his head, and now you’re going around asking what the symbol on his chest means? That’s a very specific curiosity, Blithe.”
“Indeed it is. I’d like to speak with your girl, if you don’t mind.”
“So long as I’m present, sure. And be sure that no one follows you.”
“Of course. When do you open?”
“Ha!” the Lady laughed. “We’re always open, Blithe. But I won’t be back until this evening. You may come at sundown. If you come earlier, my girls will have strict orders to not let you in.”
“Fine,” Artemis said, straightening up his hat.
“You’ll have fifteen minutes with her. Any longer and you’ll be charged the customary fee of 40 pieces a minute.”
“Don’t flatter yourself. I’ll be done in fifteen minutes.”
“Not interested?” Lady Melodic smirked.
“Good day, my Lady,” Artemis said, turning around.
“Men, then? I’m sure you’ll find us rather accommodating, Blithe!” she called after him. Artemis did not turn around. He heard Lady Melodic chuckle softly, pop her parasol, and then disappear into the shadows of the Capital.
Artemis pulled up his coat sleeve and looked at his watch — a beautiful mess of gears and springs and subtle whirs. It was barely time for breakfast. He would have to kill time until he was allowed in Lady Melodic’s house.
Shouldn't be a problem, Artemis thought to himself as the faint glow of the docks appeared on the horizon of the Capital, killing.
—let the door shut behind her. For a moment she was vaguely conscious of the enormity of her own breaths. The silence in the new space sought out her body, with all its noises, like a void engulfing new matter.
A lot of peculiar sounds filled the space. Slow stretching, like taught yarn being pulled and pulled and pulled.
She thought it was her muscles, filled with blood from running through the door, resisting the pressure of her lungs.
Her knees cracked. Both of them. In a sickening sort of way too, not like the good crack, like knuckles — it was an arthritic, decomposed, giving-up sort of crack. Like she was breaking under her own weight.
A drop of sweat slid onto her nose, hung there, distending into a liquid pendulum. It was almost too much, the way it remained, extending toward the stone, like it wanted to take her with it. Eventually, the drop broke free, smacking the floor.
Had an echo, too.
Her breathing slowed. There was a brief, maniacal little moment where she wished it hadn’t. She had found herself in these moments before — stumbling through a door, slamming it behind her, leaning into it with her back, like a wall, like a great steel beam bisecting her body. Mostly, she lucked out. It’d be a room in which no one had noticed her enter.
A hotel lobby.
Crowded public transit platform.
Bedroom — people were sleeping. That was a close one. A real close-to-awkward one. She had backed out through the door, holding her breath.
A car show.
A car dealership.
A car manufacturing plant. Also a close-to-awkward one. What if someone had seen her without safety glasses?
A sex toy shop — someone bursting through the door, panting, wasn’t the strangest thing they’d seen.
Damn, she thought, I’ve done this a lot. She wondered why she always found herself running.
“Excuse me?” someone muttered.
Shit. Not so close-to-awkward anymore. Someone was there.
What do I say? Oh, wrong door? Don’t mind me? Can I help you? Can you help me? Is this a theater — should I yell fire? Fire!
“We close in a few minutes.”
It was an elderly woman. She had a deep, rattling southern accent. Its authenticity almost made it seem contrived — as though she were purposely contorting her own mouth to produce the drawl.
“Oh, you’re closing? Right. Of course. Well, do you mind if I look around? I’m interested…” she looked around.
Best to get a grip of where I am before I raise any suspicions.
Across the vast stone floor, past the elderly lady in mauve, was a giant wall of milky paint adorned with rows upon rows of doors suspended in frames.
You’ve got to be kidding me.
“Are these doors?” she asked the elderly woman, who turned, as though she didn’t know what was behind her.
“Why do you have ’em up on the wall like that?”
“It’s a small space. They have to go somewhere.”
“Are you interested in purchasing?”
“Yes — artisanal doors.”
“Artisanal, huh…” she said airily, walking toward the middle of the floor. The old woman straightened her dress.
“I call them a black art.”
“Because no one else knows how they’re made. Just look at them,” the old woman said, walking to the doors, “Each iron bracket, bent so gracefully. This one has been restored. It’s from the 1800s. And this, look at that stress on the wood. And the staining. Art.”
Black art, she thought, pacing the doors. If this is black art I wonder what the hell this lady would think of my life. What’s dark enough — obsidian?
“I’m going to tidy up. But I’ll close in a few minutes now,” the old woman said.
“Just so you know, doors are made to order, so there is a considerable lead time.”
“I can’t just buy one off the wall?”
The old woman let out a long, restrained sigh through pursed lips.
“Well — no one’s done that before.”
“I suppose you could. I’d probably have to charge you more.”
“Take your time,” the old woman said, shuffling down a hallway.
Take your time? Are you closing or not? Jeez-us, woman.
She stood still and waited for the old woman to disappear down the hallway. Once she felt secure in the vacancy of the room, she walked slowly along the wall, simultaneously curious about the place she had just barged into and marveling at her luck.
Dark wood, iron brackets, bars on circular windows.
Paneled, stressed surfaces, an oblong stone set into the center.
Steel, brushed, the handle a sweeping vertical arc.
Frosted glass, a wooden frame, brass knob with finger prints quenching its sheen.
The doors were many. It was a rare occasion, finding herself in a position to admire the doors like that. She had not the time or desire on previous occasions to observe such subtleties. After all, she only ever cared about passing through them. And come to think of it, she rarely looked at the doors that she opened. Handles, mostly. More practical that way — knowing how to turn and what to grip.
What makes a memory, anyway? she thought as she gazed around the room.
The stone floor was cold. She removed a small black notebook from her pocket. Years ago, she told herself she would write down all the places she had been, so that she could find her way back through the doors. She only ever wrote the general sense of what she came through and the one she wound up beyond.
She cracked the spine, and looked for a vacant space to write in. The only space was a small gap along the bottom of the right-hand page of her most recent entry. The rest was filled with small descriptions of previous doors and what she found beyond them. In the remaining space she penned:
“Police station— green, cold, and sensed darkness//quiet, dust, perfume, isolation, wooden, white paint →door shop. Literally.”
She closed the notebook and placed it back into her pocket. She strode over to the wall and felt the handle of the door closest to her.
Laughing to herself, she opened the door. The milky paint of the wall behind it looked distinctly more vibrant than the rest of the room. Perhaps in the shadow of the closed door, its state had been preserved. Slowly, she closed the door, pressing her ear against the seam between the frame.
Something beyond it emanated warmth and the smell of flowers.
She scoffed. She was looking for gloom. One of those moods. Maybe an alley or an abandoned building.
She walked to the next door, dragging her fingertip along the wall. The next one was quite plain. In the dim light of the room she could not tell if it was yellow or white. Perhaps even grey. The handle was a twisted piece of wrought iron. She traced the crease of the frame and closed her eyes.
A city. Bright, exuberant. She could feel the scarcity of space, the shoulder-to-shoulder sidewalks bustling beyond.
She looked along the wall to the last door in the row. There, slipping beneath its frame, was a vaporous cloud — fog, sliding ethereally along the stone floor.
She could never actually see these things that lay beyond the doors. Or smell. Or hear. It was never something tangible, so to speak, but rather like a memory. Each door, despite for the most part having never previously granted her passage, endowed her with a familiar perception.
And in the same capacity, the fog was not visible. Yet it was there, rolling out from below the door. She tasted salt on her lips and felt the dew collecting on her lashes. She closed her eyes — there was light. Flashing. Blinking.
“Miss?” asked the woman, scuttling down the hallway.
She felt strangely compelled to run for the door, imagining the darkness of the coast, the immense sweep of the light, and the deep, solemn roar of the ocean.
“I’ll be closing now.”
She couldn’t make it. By the time she ran across the room, the woman would be watching her and what was to follow. Instead, she grabbed the door next to her, glanced longingly at the door to the lighthouse, and prepared herself instead for the hustle of the city.
She leaned hard into the door, catching a glimpse of the woman rounding the corner before she let herself fall through the door and —
January 26, 46 years Post-Migration
Waves crumbled and roared against the pitted cliffside. Sometimes she wondered if the narrow pillar of sea-rock would shatter and fall. Usually in between the rolling sets, when the trembling had stopped, she felt compelled by the unnerving feeling that at last the skinny tower would be reduced to sand and that at any moment she would feel the strange tightening of her stomach during the fall. But it never came. She stood tall, as did the lighthouse, despite the unrelenting roll of the Pacific.
The last stars of the night dwindled along the horizon, resilient against the coming dawn. Leaning back against the windows, she watched the ocean come to life. Western winds blew ripples to the surface, and in the new light the whole view appeared to be shivering. She cupped her hands over her mouth and breathed. It was a cold morning.
Behind her, the clouds were forgetting lilac for dahlia-pink. The fog was sneaking quietly back to slumber behind the hills. She watched the array of lights in the center of the lighthouse chamber spin and paint her body a yellowish-white. Ages ago, the old burners were replaced with the silent warmth of LEDs. Heralded as minuscule saviors to the state’s energy crisis, they were installed in nearly all the traffic signals. She still wondered how many millions of the things dotted roads along the golden coast. The array of lights spun like a new-age pirouette against the wavy glass and cracked plaster of the aging lighthouse.
She rubbed her hands together, and let out a big, open-mouth yawn, hoping to see her breath.
Nothing, she thought. She would soon regret wishing for the change — the depths of winter brought uncomfortable winds. She continued rubbing her hands together and watched a few more spins of the lights. Outside of the lighthouse, she spotted the freight ships, big and silent, being shepherded into the bay along their routes. On some mornings she stood against the glass and spoke commands into an imaginary radio.
Bear left, two degrees.
Slow down, 4.5 knots. It is knots, isn’t it?
There’s a priority shipment behind you, pull into the auxiliary lane while it passes — yes that’s an order, damnit!
She would speak into the invisible plastic shell as though she were broadcasting commands over the airwaves. Truthfully, she had no idea what a ship’s crew would say to each other over their radios. It had been many years since ships were actually driven by people, and many still since any humans were present on ships at all. Instead, ships were autonomous. They were timely, behemoth robots, ferrying the world’s cargo.
She looked out of the lighthouse at one of the closer ships. Its decks were stacked high with containers — reds, blues, greens. She wondered what was inside of them. In the early 2000s, her paranoid relatives told stories of what could be smuggled aboard these ships.
“The whole system’s corrupt!” her cousin Dillon had said, “Straight down from the legislature, I know it. They lay workers off by the thousands to save a pretty penny for themselves. There aren’t nearly enough people to inspect what’s coming through our ports.”
Nuclear missiles. Dirty bombs. Chemical weapons. Drugs.
The whole lot. Even now, a little Dillon was screaming behind the locked doors of her memories, “One day, they’re gonna blow! You’ll see!” As time passed, he grew more muffled. Years had gone by with no explosions. The ships slid into the bay with indifference.
I’ll admit it here, she thought, But heavens, never aloud! Never to anyone…but in the post-9/11 days Dillon and the relatives lit a mild kindling of paranoia within me. She remembered driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, on her way to work, watching the ships grow from little specks on the horizon to the frightening beasts of steel and color they were in the bay. And she would wonder — is today the day?
As the freighter moved inward toward the bay, she played with the locket in her pocket. It was her grandmother’s. The picture had faded into rough paper that she fiddled with when she was nervous.
And here I am, she thought, hand in pocket, sweaty thumb moving in little circles on the worn picture of my dead mom’s mom.
She closed the locket.
It’s nonsense, those stories and fears. Thousands of ships have traversed this bay since Dillon spouted off the “an entire army can be penned up in those containers on one ship alone!” spiel and all I’ve got to show for it is a paper I wished looked like my only memory of a woman I’d never met.
She rubbed her hands again. The ship moved predictably under the bridge and toward the loading bays in Oakland, where the cranes, and trucks, and handlers were all robotic, all automated, all void of any humans.
She walked around to the back and looked at the footbridge that led to the rocky trail. It stretched out around the cliffsides, back up toward the road where she kept her truck parked. The footbridge stretched over a small ravine that plummeted down to the ocean. At its entrance, she had fixed a large sign that read “NO TRESPASSING—PLEASE RING” directly above a small button.
It used to be a landmark, and people would spend their weekends hiking the cliffside trails to come see the lighthouse. After the Great Migration happened, and people flocked by the thousands to the Manifold, the trails saw less traffic. Years had passed, and the landmark had seen such a precipitous drop in interest that she was able to purchase it from the state. She fixed it up, renovated it, called it home.
She recalled a particularly fond memory from years before, when a curious old man had wandered down the path. She had been working inside the lighthouse, drinking tea, when the buzzer rang. She crossed the bridge and chatted with him. He had come across the country to see this lighthouse—said something vague about it being very important to him during his childhood. She let him in, and watched him carefully as he wandered around the grounds. Occasionally, he would pause to peer over the edge of the cliffs. He squinted downward, almost angry, as though he were returning a dare. He had a long, pointed white beard; his head was neatly trimmed. The woven brim of his hat shielded his spectacled eyes and hinted at some prior, tropical vacation — a departing airport purchase, perhaps. He walked bowed over, nearly staring at his feet, as though after all those years the weight of his head was simply too much to keep up on his neck. At one point, he approached the cliffside and held firmly onto the fence railing. He jutted his chin out, all Pop-Eye-like, and squinted at the sea.
She leaned against the railing some distance away, watching the old man. After several minutes of aimless staring, he looked over at her, placed one hand over his eyes as though he was unaware that his hat could do the trick of shading, and called out, “Do you like the birds?”
She smiled, “The seagulls?”
“Well…” he paused for a long, almost awkward while, “I don’t know. All of them, I s’ppose.”
“They’re pleasant in the morning. Although as the day picks up they get a little feisty. The noise starts to wear on me.”
“Oh…right. Right, that would get tiresome.”
“Are you here for the birds?”
He looked away and back at the ocean. Although he was still, she knew he was searching for the right words. “Of course.”
A seagull caught an upward rush of air along the cliffside and careened this-way-and-that.
The man called out, “Wow-ee! Look at that!”
She stood against the same railing for a few minutes. Each new bird that flew into view seemed to elicit fewer responses from that first gull that had rocketed up the cliffs— the man let out a few ha!s here and there. He stood with his feet planted firmly against the ground, both hands gripping the cold railing.
He stood there for nearly an hour before asking her to open the gate. Without missing a beat, he walked across the bridge and through the gate, saying over his shoulder, “Just don’t let ’em shit on ya!”
She shouted, “Good looking out!” as he walked away, and watched him for the entirety of his slow, hunched hike back toward the road.
Outside of the visit from the old man, most days were uneventful. She rather enjoyed the cloudless days at the lighthouse, the White Tower of Both Blues, Pacific and sky, a beacon searing light into light. But the cold days were strangely comforting. On stormy days, she would spend time in the circular light chamber, bundled up beneath a blanket, smiling as the rain flattened into sheets against the glass. Often times she feared that the rain and wind would send the whole structure toppling into the whitewash below. Sometimes, she imagined herself fighting for air, shedding her clothes in an attempt to stay buoyant, grasping for the wreckage in the stormy waters before finding a broken slab of wood to float on. She could see herself digging into the waters and paddling blindly toward what she hoped was a shore. Surely she’d vomit — many times — having swallowed entire waves of the sea as she panted and swam.
I can see the shore, she thought, There are swarms of police, firefighters, and the coast guard taking refuge behind their vehicles. Even they fear the storm. I am the Second Great Escape. Only this time — they’ll find me.
The solitude of living at the lighthouse had imparted a wild imagination upon her. She shook the visions from her mind, and pressed her hand against the cool glass of the lighthouse. A few seagulls circled the chamber. She wondered what they thought of her.
Suddenly, the chamber filled with a loud ringing. She knew that sound—it was the gate. She looked out across the footbridge, but didn’t see anyone. The buzz sounded again. She pressed her face against the glass and peered out toward the gate. Whoever was there, they were hardly visible through the gaps in the metal. The gate rang again.
“Yeah, yeah,” she said, putting on a beanie and walking down the stairs. She made her way across the rocky terrain and over the footbridge. She opened the gate, but found no one there.
“Hello,” someone said. Startled, she turned to the side. She found herself staring at a small, metal orb floating just near the gate buzzer.
“Oh, Jesus,” she said, her hand over her heart.
“A call is being made to Zyz,” the orb said, “Are you Zyz?”
She looked into the metallic sheen of the orb. It was the size of a baseball—she had the sudden urge to grab it and throw it as far as she could.
“Yes,” she responded.
“May I confirm your identity?” the orb asked.
“Fine,” Zyz said. She had done this before. The orb took on a faint blue glow, hardly visible, and spun rapidly. Although it wasn’t obvious, Zyz could feel it looking over her body. After a few seconds, the glow disappeared, and a small chime sounded.
“Identity confirmed. Do you wish to take the call?” the orb asked.
“Who is it from?”
“Director Noam Laurel, of Jupiter Enterprises.”
A rock formed in Zyz’s stomach, weighing her down. She looked over her shoulder and up into the sky.
“Do you wish to take the call?” the orb asked.
Zyz turned back to the orb, wondering if Director Laurel was already watching her.
“Go ahead,” she said.
“Zyz, thank you for taking the call,” the smooth voice of Director Laurel emanated from the orb, “I know I am likely the last person you were hoping to hear from, but you were the only person who it made sense to contact.”
Zyz took a deep breath through her nose.
“How are you?” Director Laurel asked.
“Fine,” Zyz responded.
“Look, I won’t waste your time. I need your help.”
“You need my help or Jupiter Enterprises needs my help?”
A tangible silence floated between them. Zyz stared at the orb.
“Me, just me—I need your help. Although to be clear, it’s fair to say that Jupiter Enterprises needs your help as well. But it’s on my behalf, not the company’s.”
“Yeah, well how’s everything been going?” Zyz asked, sticking her hands firmly into her pockets.
“Speaking honestly—not good.”
“Join the club,” Zyz said, looking out over the bay, through the Golden Gate.
“Look,” Director Laurel went on, “It took a lot for me to muster up the courage to contact you — this is urgent.”
“I’ve got all the time in the world, Director.”
Another pause settled between them.
“How are things down there?” he asked.
“Look, what do you want—”
“Do you still go to the city ever?”
“Ha,” she laughed, “No. It’s not really an interesting place now that the population is 20,000 people. Last time I was there the demolition droids were actually taking buildings down.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that before.”
A seagull flew above her, floating on a breeze momentarily before diving back down below the footbridge.
“What?” she said curtly.
“There is something gravely wrong with the system. Something is not stable. We’re getting word of crazy instability, of entire planes disappearing.”
“You’re going to have to be more clear, Director. Planes vanish all the time, it’s part of maintenance.”
“We’re talking about active planes, Zyz.”
A chill washed over Zyz, and she suspected it wasn’t the wind. She had tried her best to forget her former job with Jupiter Enterprises.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
Zyz ran a hand through her hair. The director went on.
“Please. Can you meet me here? I’ll schedule a ferry to come pick you up so you can get to the Lift. Can you come today?”
“I’m assuming you would prefer that I don’t take my time?” she asked.
“No one’s asking but me, Zyz. You may come whenever you’d like, but it’s urgent.”
Zyz turned around and looked out at the freight ship, well into the bay now. A few gulls could be seen, faintly, circling above the decks. She looked back out to the ocean, past the lighthouse. There were no ships in sight.
“Yeah. OK. OK, send your damn ferry.”
“Sorry for the urgent —”
“I’ll see you soon,” she said quickly, waving her hand in front of the orb to cut the call. The orb transitioned to subtle red, signaling that the transmission had been cut. Zyz walked back through the gate and onto the bridge.
The orb called after her, “The ferry will arrive in approximately—”
“I know, I know,” Zyz said, gesturing over her shoulder for the orb to shut up. It did. Inside the lighthouse she opened a closet. Dust flew into her eye — she had forgotten how long it had been since she opened it. After a brief bout of coughing and rubbing at her eyes, she began digging through the contents of the closet. She opened several drawers, moving around old papers and trinkets she had long forgotten, until at last she found a small badge.
A beaming, tanned, younger self stared back at her. Below her picture, in purple, were the words: JUPITER ENTERPRISES. She wasn’t sure if she would even need the badge, but shoved it into her pocket anyway. She darted up the spiral stairs to look back out across the ocean. She leaned back against the windows and caught her breath. The array of lights hummed through its revolutions.
Often she pretended that each mechanical whir and bzz of the lighthouse’s motor was the sound of some great pulley, extending downward into the rocks below. Powered by the sloshing heartbeat of the ocean, the great system spun the LEDs until stroke by stroke a new morning was painted across the sky.
As the sun burst over the Oakland hills and bled into the bay, it was hard to believe otherwise.
Zyz turned and looked toward the Golden Gate. A small white ferry was zipping along at unbelievable speed.
He wasn’t kidding about being urgent, she thought. As she walked down the spiral stair case, the ferry made up the remaining distance. It pulled up and docked at the bottom of a trail that led up to the lighthouse. Zyz grabbed a coat, double-checked that she had her badge and belongings, and began walking down the trail. The orb floated off the side of the cliffs and descended with her toward the ferry.
As she approached the dock, the ferry roof slid outward, revealing a row of white seats. There was no one inside. She stepped down into the ferry, choosing one of the middle seats. As soon as she got settled, the roof slid quietly back into place, and the ferry lurched forward. The boat spun around and accelerated toward the Golden Gate. She grabbed onto the seats around her, trying to regain her balance.
The great, orange beams of the bridge passed overhead in nearly an instant, revealing the misty San Francisco peninsula. A few of the skyscrapers had been reduced to skeletons. If she squinted, she could see the demolition droids climbing up the sides like tiny spiders, grabbing bits and pieces of the structure to bring back to their nests, somewhere beneath the skyline. The ferry cabin lit up with a soft blue, and a calm voice said: Now arriving, Alcatraz Station. Thank you for riding with Transbay Rapid.
The ferry pulled up to the island’s dock nearly as quickly as it had rocketed away from the lighthouse—Zyz caught herself on the chairs in front of her. After a few moments of rocking and swaying, the roof slid open, and she climbed out onto the dock. For a moment, she felt a wave of nausea overcome her. It had been a while since she was on any of the ferries, and she only hoped she would fare well on the Lift.
The orb zipped by her and up the pathway leading to the old Alcatraz complex. She followed in its wake, admiring how pristine the janitorial droids had kept the paint — green line on the right for arriving passengers, red line on the left for departing passengers. A gust of wind slipped over the edge of the island and sent her hair into a frenzy. She pulled at her coat’s collar and leaned into the wind.
At the top of the path, she walked through the historic archway to the Alcatraz complex and into the station. It was completely empty. The orb waited silently at a turnstile.
“I’ve already paid your fare, on behalf of Jupiter Enterprises,” it said.
“Wow, what a favor,” she said sarcastically.
“You are welcome,” the orb said.
She walked through the turnstile, enjoying the homage to the old subway systems. The orb led her down a few stairs to the platform of the Partially Evacuated Pod Transportation System — most people lovingly called it the PEZ.
As promised, the orb had already paid her PEZ fare. As she approached the loading chamber, the doors opened, inviting her inside. She took a moment to look around the station, having remembered what the PEZ system looked like during its busy days. The PEZ system stretched across the entire world, connecting remote islands and continents to each other. It was an expensive system to ride, and as such most of its passengers worked for top-tier engineering or real estate companies. PEZ pods would enter the deceleration tubes with a loud POP, and then slowly arrive at the Alcatraz Station. As the passengers disembarked, the slight pressure differential from the tubes would hiss and whisper their way through the crowds, often times completely drowned out by the footsteps of the people on their way to work.
Zyz entered the loading bay and found a PEZ pod waiting for her, the orb already inside. She walked in and found a seat, following the audio instructions for strapping herself in. Again she recalled the times where the PEZ pods were full of voices and people and heat. Sitting there, alone, with no company other than the orb, felt surreal.
Moments later, the pod rocketed forward and into the evacuated tubes that stretched below the surface of the water. A sign at the front of the cabin indicated that they would have 45 minutes until their arrival at the Lift station. Zyz leaned back into her chair and closed her eyes, trying to relax.
“Why did you leave Jupiter Enterprises?” the orb asked.
Zyz opened her eyes and lifted her head off of the back of the seat. The orb was floating in the aisle next to her. If she looked closely, she could see it spinning around every so often, presumably looking around at the cabin of the pod.
“Oh…” Zyz sighed, straightening up, “I didn’t leave, exactly.”
“Director Laurel says you quit.”
“That’s what most people said. I was forced out.”
“For what reason, may I ask?”
“Ethics,” Zyz said.
“I suspect you think the platform on which the company derived its success was an unethical one.”
“No, I…” Zyz trailed off, having brief flashbacks to her time working for Jupiter Enterprises, “I wouldn’t say the platform was unethical. The technology was the most important thing I have ever worked on in my life, it was likely the most important thing that had happened to the human race. But the people, and the choices they made, on how to run the company, and how to use the technology…well, I guess I just had fundamental disagreements with them.”
“So they fired you?”
“Ha,” Zyz laughed, “It was more nuanced than that. I was altogether shunned by the management, and I had become such a thorn in their side that one day I was politely asked to step down.”
“I did. I bought a historic piece of land at the mouth of the San Francisco bay, fixed up that old lighthouse, and settled down.”
“Well…I greatly admire you work. It is a pleasure to have met you.”
“Thank you. I appreciate you keeping me company.”
“Director Laurel will be happy to see you.”
“We’ll see about that,” Zyz whispered.
Time flew by—in no time the PEZ pod arrived at the Lift station. Zyz’s ears popped from the pressurization and she shook her head as she stepped out of the cabin. Zyz followed the orb through empty hallways of the Lift station. A great, spiral path circled about empty food stands and gadget shops, past nooks repurposed into mini-museums documenting the construction of the station, before they emerged into the piercing sunlight of the outdoors.
The Lift station was one of the most impressive marvels of humankind—other than Jupiter Enterprises. It was a space elevator dubbed the Lift. It had changed space travel forever. Costs of putting equipment into orbit plummeted, space tourism exploded, and the first research stations were built on the moon and Mars within the decade that the Lift became operational.
Jupiter Enterprises was one of the first organizations to move their corporate headquarters into orbit. It also doubled as the largest computer server center ever constructed. It was an enormous sphere — so large that it could easily be seen from Earth.
The orb led Zyz into a Lift carriage, where she entered and strapped into the seats.
“Will the Director be at the top of the Lift?”
“No,” the orb replied, “He will remain at Jupiter Enterprises. You will take a space ferry to the company, where he will be waiting for you.”
The Lift howled and began to rise. Zyz gripped the armrests.
“May I ask you a question?” Zyz asked, watching as the ground sunk below her, being replaced by the vivid blue of the atmosphere.
“What is the purpose of today’s meeting with the Director?”
“To discuss the problems they are having with the planes — ”
“I know, I get that. I’m asking what he actually wants me to do for him.”
The orb paused, floating silently next to the Lift window. The blue faded into a whitish-grey, and Zyz could spot the looming blackness of space beginning to descend upon her.
“Under normal circumstances,” the orb said, “I would think it most wise to keep that confidential, as the Director wanted to tell you himself. But there is very little risk of controversy these days.”
“You’ve got that right,” Zyz replied.
“He wants you to go in, Zyz — to figure out what is wrong.”
“In?” Zyz repeated, “In where?”
“The Manifold. He wants you to go into the Manifold.”
March 12, 1979
Their office was in the Transamerica Pyramids. Building number two. It was the smaller of the four, and in that way felt strangely homey. They wrangled a hell of a deal out of the property owners, and managed to get a spot on the 16th floor. On the north side of the building, on clear days, the sweet blue of the bay could be seen between the surrounding skyscrapers.
They stepped out from the cab and into the rain. Holding her hand over her eyes, Delilah peered up the concrete sides of Transamerica Pyramid 2 and watched as the building stretched into the thick ceiling of clouds. It had not stormed like that in ages. As the cab pulled away from the curb, Delilah and Rachid jogged over to the front doors. The guard inside spotted them, waved, and buzzed them in. They flashed their badges and shook their coats off in the foyer.
“Late night?” the guard asked.
“It’s really starting to look like it,” Delilah said.
“Wow,” he said, pointing outside. The rain seemed to be pouring more ferociously than before. “You know, if you decide to sleep here to avoid the rain, I won’t tell anybody.”
“Thank you,” Delilah smiled kindly, striding over to the elevator. The guard leaned back in his chair, continuing to read a magazine.
Funny how I never remember the guards. Almost a year of coming in and out of those front doors and yet I don’t stop to notice one of the more familiar faces in the building, Delilah thought.
The elevator doors opened — she hurried inside and pressed 16. Rachid had not said a word since they got in the cab outside his apartment. She thought of making conversation, even joking about how much shit he could give her when they realized they’d been fooled— but she didn’t say a word. As the elevator rose, Rachid bit at his nails.
Their office was overly spacious. It was that way even before the others began working remotely. If it weren’t for the quantum computing breakthroughs in the late 60s, they would likely be working out of some datacenter in the mountains of Idaho. Now their server room only took up half the floor of their office. Just two years ago, their stacks would have been the most powerful in the world. But at the rates of recent advancements, they were lucky to even break the top 500 list.
“This is either the cruelest joke in the world, or salvation from being one of the most expensive venture-funded failures ever,” Rachid said as they approached the doors to their office just outside the elevator. Delilah noticed that he avoided looking at their logo emblazoned on the large, frosted glass doors. The office was split down the middle — one half for the desks, the other for the server room. As Delilah bee-lined toward her desk, Rachid walked slowly, pointedly looking under the few desks that dotted the open space.
Delilah’s patch buzzed.
It will be over in a few minutes, it read. It was the Darius persona.
This is either the greatest hoax or our greatest breakthrough, Delilah thought. She walked over to her desk and turned on her computer. Immediately she began searching through the change logs for any evidence that a team member had changed something. She scanned over the few changes. They were small. Mostly corrections to syntax. Some cleaning up of structure. But there was nothing there. Since going live, the code had gone virtually unchanged.
Rachid walked up behind her. “No one’s here.”
“Did you check the server room?”
“Not yet. But they don’t have the key anyway.”
“So maybe this is real,” Delilah said as she pulled open her visualization tools for the simulation. It was nothing special — a few, overly colorful displays of various types of data. They built it mostly out of fear that for a long time, they would have nothing to show, and that the only indication that something was working was by walking people through the graphs and explaining why they were important and what they represented and how if everything continued as planned then they would —
So desperate, Delilah thought.
“There’s no way this is coming from Sia,” Rachid said, bending down and peering at the screen over her shoulder.
Sighing, she responded, “I don’t get it.”
Someone else is here, Sia said.
Rachid read the message and laughed, “Real funny.”
Delilah’s heart thumped in her chest — she felt strangely panicked. The joke — it must be a joke —was feeling more and more twisted.
Rachid went on. “Where are they doing this from?” He got up and walked around the office again, looking beneath the desks, inside of supply closets, checking the bathrooms. He even opened a window and peered out onto the ledge, letting in a small torrent of wind and rain.
Ignoring the message, Delilah began opening her own files. If somebody tampered with her code, she would know it.
Are you sure? Darius asked.
Yes, but I don’t know who.
You will be OK.
“Rachid!” Delilah hissed into the dark, blinded by her computer screen.
“Come here.” He trudged unwillingly over, stopping at every desk to check once more for the hiding perpetrator.
“What the…” he muttered, reading the screen.
“I can’t figure it out. If this is real, why would she create this Darius figure?”
Rachid ran his hand through his hair, “They’re doing this remotely. The fuckers, that’s it. They’re probably just laying in their beds, laughing their asses off!”
“Rachid, I seriously doubt they would go to these lengths.”
“For a prank? I wouldn’t put it past them.”
Lightning struck somewhere outside the building. No line carved its way from the heavens — instead the storm glowed from within. The office was lit in the brief glow of its power. Moments later, the windows rattled.
This is the tricky part. The process should be over quickly. Are you ready?
Don’t be. You won’t notice anything. Goodbye for now, Sia. We’ll speak on the other side.
A small window popped up on Delilah’s screen: Transfer Initiated.
“What the fuck is she transferring?” Rachid said out loud.
Delilah scanned over the messages and back at the dialog box. She immediately began looking through various diagnostics on her computer, tied directly into Sia’s —
“Servers…” Delilah said, looking across the office. Her mouth hung open.
“The servers. This transfer is directly from the servers.”
They both stood up, staring across the darkness of the empty office at the single, wooden door that led to their server room.
Delilah swallowed loudly, saying, “I thought you said no one has the — ”
“I did, no one has the fucking keys to that other than us,” Rachid said. He clasped his hand over his mouth, “Do you think someone’s in there?”
“It has to be them…” Delilah said. She looked back down at her computer, “Jesus, Rachid. This is everything — she’s transferring fucking everything off of the — ”
Rachid ran across the office before she could finish, swiping his keycard outside the door and entering the server room. Delilah ran after him. Rachid toggled the lights, but nothing turned on. The server racks stretched out before them like a small field of crops. Rachid began walking sideways, looking through the rows.
“Rachid,” Delilah whispered, “Rachid!”
Rachid looked at her and held a finger to his lips. He began walking down one of the rows. Delilah walked to the middle row and found the main server terminal. The screen read: COMPLETE.
“Fuck…” Delilah said under breath. Rachid appeared at the end of the row and walked toward her.
“What is it?” Rachid asked, looking at the screen.
“Rachid,” Delilah said, dumbfounded, “It’s gone. She’s gone — it’s all gone.”
“It doesn’t matter, we have backups.”
“I know, but someone has Sia, an active copy — a working copy. And the only way to transfer these files is from this terminal, which means — ”
Something clanged from one of the server rows. The both turned their heads, staring toward where the sound came from. Rachid began tip-toeing toward the row, and motioned for Delilah to go to the other side. She walked slowly to the end of the row and crept along the back wall. She grabbed a small pipe that was leaning up against the wall, gripping it like a baseball bat.
Delilah crept along the wall, staring intently down each row of servers. Rachid was doing the same, looking for where the sound came from. Delilah’s mind was racing.
What is going on? she thought, Who could be in here?
Delilah approached the next row of servers and spotted Rachid at the end of the row. They both looked at each other. Delilah started to walk to the next row when she saw Rachid flinch. There was a bright flash of light and a sound like a bubble popping, and suddenly Rachid was thrown backward, crashing through several rows of server racks.
“Rachid!” Delilah screamed. A shadowy figure appeared at the end of the row, raising its arm toward Delilah. Instinctively, she dove to the side. The same flash of light and sound filled the room, and a glowing mist shot down the row, hitting the wall where she was just standing. It spread out and disappeared.
Delilah crawled along the ground, prodding at her patch for the police.
“What’s your emergency?” an operator picked up.
“Help, I’m being attacked at Transamerica Pyramid number — ” a flash of light zoomed by her again, breaking several server racks. Delilah screamed.
“Hello?” the operator called.
“Please help! I’m on the 16th floor — ”
“Ma’am, we’ve tracked your patch location, the authorities are on the way. Is it safe to talk? Can you describe the attacker?”
Delilah was laying down on the floor, still clutching the pipe.
“No, he’s in the room somewhere,” Delilah whispered.
“I’ll mute the line. Please keep the call on, I’ll be listening.”
The line went silent. Delilah held her breath for several moments until she heard movement. Craning her neck, she spotted the shadowy figure moving through a nearby row of servers. She crawled into the closest row of servers and watched the figure emerge against the back walls. The figure stood still. Slowly, Delilah stood up, her grip on the pipe tightening.
She took a quiet breath, and suddenly, the figure turned around. She found herself staring into glowing, red eyes, perfect circles against the black silhouette of the figure. She saw the figure raise its arm — Delilah swung. The pipe found the head of the intruder, who stumbled backward against the wall. She continued swinging, landing the pipe on the intruder’s leg. He cried out in pain. She swung again, but he caught the pipe with one of his hands and kicked her in the stomach, sending her staggering backward.
The figure recovered from the blow and fired its weapon. The light caught her on the shoulder, causing her to spin several times before crashing into a server rack.
“Ma’am? Ma’am are you alright?” the operator said, un-muting the line. Delilah groaned and pulled herself up from the wreckage. The intruder was limping along the back wall, heading toward a door that led to an electrical closet.
“What have you done with Sia?” Delilah called out.
Delilah made sure her back was toward the door, blocking his only way out.
“Ma’am?” the operator asked again. Delilah ignored it. The intruder approached the electrical door and pulled it open. An enormous white light filled the room. Delilah ran to the end of the servers and stared at the intruder. A blistering glow was emanating from the electrical closet. The figure limped in, closing the door behind him.
“Stop!” Delilah cried, running toward the door. Her hand caught the edge just before the door closed. The intruder struggled with her for a moment, then swung the door outward, cracking it against Delilah’s nose. She was blinded for a moment with pain, but maintained her grip on the door. When she regained her balance, she ran through the door.
She shielded her eyes, overcome with the brightness of whatever it was beyond the door. She staggered forward, and as her eyes adjusted, she heard the door close behind her. Spinning around, she saw nothing but bright white — the door had disappeared. Disoriented, she turned around, trying to get a sense of her surroundings.
What is this — this is the electrical closet — how? her mind raced.
She found herself in a room so enormous, that everything stretched out into imperceptible depth. She could see no horizon, but instead just whiteness that stretched out from beneath her feat and encompassed everything. It was like her eyes were closed, but the black of darkness had been replaced with white.
She walked slowly, her hands out, feeling for the door. But she found nothing. There was no time for her to process what had just happened — the shadowy man, the fight in the server room, Rachid…
“Rachid,” she muttered. She winced, realizing her shoulder was in pain. She braced it with her other hand, realizing that her shirt was soaked with blood. Whatever the man had fired at her, it cut her deeply. Just when she was about to call out, she heard a noise behind her.
Spinning around, she found the intruder. He was dressed in all black, from head to toe, as though he were covered with a dark paint that reflected nothing. He had a pair of goggles on his head. They were golden, and whirring, and had glowing red lenses. The figure raised his hand, pointing what looked like a gun at her.
“Stop! Please, I just — ” she cried out.
The man pulled the trigger.
She was unconscious before she heard the weapon fire.
April 3, 1543
“Another one?” the bartender asked Artemis.
“No,” he replied, “Too early.”
The bartender shrugged and walked toward the other end of the bar, continuing to shine up glasses and take orders from the few patrons who sat at the counter. This was one of the few bars Artemis ever frequented. It was near the entrance of the Capitol, by the docks. There was very rarely any trouble made there, and the pours were generous. Artemis preferred whiskey, straight with no ice, in a short glass.
He leaned back in his chair and exhaled slowly, feeling the whiskey fumes burn at his eyes. He pulled out the paper from earlier, the one he had showed to Lady Melodic, and stared at the symbol. It was true what she had told him, that Lord Jovian used the symbol on his flyers, his advertisements, and even as tattoos. But Artemis wanted to know its mysteries — where it came from, what it meant, why Lord Jovian required devotion to it.
The truth was, Artemis never intended on investigating Lord Jovian. He had been hired by a wealthy family from the countryside whose son had gone missing. He was a promising young man who had enrolled in the Air Marshal Academy after graduating in engineering from Moorlin University — the family had high aspirations for his future. So when he failed to turn up for his interview with the Air Marshals, or contact anyone about what he was up to, the family grew nervous.
The countryside was seldom a place with controversy. Most families settled there after making their fortune in Moorlin, or came from other counties to conduct business via the trade routes along the river. It was hard speaking with the family at first. Artemis, who had spent much of his life within the borders of Moorlin, had forgotten what it was like to be so unfamiliar with strife. They were stricken with grief at the loss of their son, and through many referrals wound up with Artemis’s number.
He agreed to meet with them at their home in the hillsides. Artemis took a train out there, which took the better part of an entire day. Their home had high, gaudy walls. Their hedges were all trimmed. On the backside of the house was a large pond with a dock. Like all of Moorlin County, it was shrouded in fog, with little color. The family wore all black, whether from mourning or habit Artemis was unsure.
It wasn’t difficult for Artemis to track down the boy. He had been taken in by Lord Jovian, a steadfast adopter of the cult’s promises and proclamations. Artemis had taken the boy into custody and was headed back toward the train station when his steam carriage was ambushed by Jovian’s followers. The boy was taken from him by the servant who would later have a bounty placed on his head.
A few days after the ambush, the boy had altogether disappeared. Artemis assumed that Lord Jovian was keeping him penned up in his Mansion on the inland edge of Moorlin, miles from the river. Artemis sleuthed around for the following weeks, following the servant and Jovian’s men, when he learned of the bounty on the servant. Seeing the bounty as an excuse to apprehend the servant and ultimately bring the boy back to his family, Artemis captured the servant.
But he was too late. The servant was gravely wounded, and claimed in his dying breath to have been done in by Jovian’s men. As the servant lay dying in his arms, Artemis asked repeatedly for the location of the boy. But he was too late — the servant slipped into death before he could answer. Of the possessions on the servant’s body, only two were of particular interest to Artemis. The first, a page that had been torn from a book. Among the words on the torn page was the symbol of Jovian’s cult. The second item was a card that read Lady Melodic’s Perfumes and Wares. It was that card that inspired Artemis to contact Lady Melodic. It was Artemis’s hope that the girl at her brothel would be the key to unraveling the cause for the servant’s death, and ultimately, the location of the missing boy.
Artemis downed the rest of his whiskey and exited the bar, relishing the damp air of the Capitol. He pulled his trench coat close, his hat lower, and adjusted his goggles. They were a new pair — custom built from a friend who worked for the Air Marshals. They were an original pair of standard-issue Marshal goggles, but Artemis’s friend had modified them with a few extra features. They featured top-of-the-line filters: thermal, night, sonar, and the works. They even had the ability to track people who had been tagged with a tiny gizmo Artemis had built himself. He suspected that some of the features were new, and that potentially even the Air Marshals did not have them.
Illegal, certainly, but then again that never bothered Artemis.
A thin beam of sunlight poked through the clouds over the Delrin River. So rare was the sight of sun that all of the docksmen fell silent, covered their eyes, and peered skywards. It was as though some chariot had emerged from the heavens, heralding the sign of things to come. And as quickly as it came, it fizzled out without a sound, swept away by the all-encompassing fog. The workers bowed their heads, returning to their work, making Artemis aware of just how noisy the sounds of the city were.
He emerged on the top level of Market street and mingled with the passersby. The streets of Moorlin always looked as though they were born out of film — a grey haze permeated everything, adding a layer of texture to the parasols, the shrubs, the flowing dresses, the buttoned vests. The steam carriages yawned their plumes into the sky, quickly blending in to the ceiling of mist that hung close to everyone’s heads. There was a certain grandeur to the architecture of the city. It was nearly impossible to gauge how tall each structure was, as they disappeared into the low-hanging fog after just twenty stories.
Skyways and parks were placed at various altitudes in the city, but were rarely visible due to the fog. A few towers were so tall that they pierced through the top of the clouds into the clear blue of the sky beyond. Artemis did not know for certain how many buildings could boast such heights, as he was never fortunate to have seen one. On particularly drab days, he daydreamed about the milky ocean of fog and the piercing sunlight from the penthouses of one of the towers.
A few blocks later, Artemis arrived at the gondola turnstiles. He approached the ticket booth.
“Fourth tier,” he said.
“Four pieces?” he repeated.
“Raised the prices, did you?”
The cashier pointed dryly to a sign next to the window that in bold letters announced the fare increases.
“When’d that go up?” Artemis asked.
“Of course…” Artemis grumbled, digging through his pocket for four pieces. He slid the coins across the counter and received his ticket.
“Thanks,” he said. Past the turnstiles, he stood close to the platform edge and looked up at the thick steel cables as they disappeared into the fog with the buildings. A gondola swung around the station, opening its doors. Artemis filed in with the other passengers and settled against the back wall.
Outside the glass windows of the gondola, buildings and skyways barely took form. They passed as ephemeral shadows and shapes, nothing distinct, just a brief sense of something tangible in the void. The gondola ride was rickety but surprisingly fast — dew from the fog readily collected on the windows and rolled diagonally downward.
The gondola swung into the fourth tier station and Artemis stepped off. The doors hissed shut behind him, carrying the rest of the passengers into the heavy fog.
He was alone. He adjusted his goggles, looking around at the fourth tier. It was mostly residential and surprisingly well-to-do. As he walked the streets, he marveled at the sizable estates tucked away behind enormous iron gates. At the edge of their lawns, over surprisingly short fences, was the sheer drop through the mist to the tiers and streets below.
After a few minutes, Artemis arrived at a store front.
Lady Melodic’s Perfumes and Wares
He passed through the door, and a bell rang above his head. He was overcome with the sweetness of one thousand conflicting smells. Shelves stretched upward toward the ceiling, circling about a single, massive chandelier. A few patrons were on ladders, puffing themselves with colored-mists and taking deep, nostril-flaring inhalations.
“Ah, welcome!” a man said from behind the counter. He was tall and thin, with blonde hair matted down to his head. His suit was fitted and properly tailored — Artemis looked him up and down.
“May I help you look for something?” the man asked.
“I’m here for Melodic,” Artemis replied.
“Sir, as the business owner she rarely — ”
“Look, I’m not here for the perfumes pal. Call back to her and let her know Artemis has arrived.”
A bit of color drained from the man’s face.
“Artemis? Artemis B-Blithe?” he stuttered.
Artemis tipped his hat.
“Right away sir,” the man said, scurrying back around the counter and picking up a telephone. He whispered something into the phone and hung up. A few moments later, a door behind the counter swung open, revealing a long, narrow hallway.
“Thank you,” Artemis said, passing by the counter and walking down the hallway. After several corners, the hallway opened up into a massive foyer. Several hallways darted off in all directions, and a grand central staircase led upward to another floor.
“Always punctual,” Lady Melodic called from the top of the stairs.
“I live by my word,” he called up to her.
“Well let’s make this quick,” she said, walking away, “I’ve got a business to run.”
Artemis followed her down a hallway into a small bedroom. Lady Melodic shut the door behind them. Artemis took off his hat. A girl was sitting in an armchair opposite the door, wearing a long, billowing dress. The color had faded so much that Artemis could barely notice the traces of purple in its folds.
“Blithe, this is Lady Lilac, you have fifteen minutes.”
“Thank you,” Artemis said, pulling up a small plush stool and sitting next to the girl.
“Were you followed?” Lady Lilac asked. She was playing with the folds of her dress.
“Most certainly not, Lady Lilac.”
“Hurry it up, Blithe,” Lady Melodic called.
Artemis gritted his teeth and sighed.
“My lady,” he said, watching Lilac, “It is my understanding that you kept the company of one of Jovian’s servants. The one who had a bounty on his head.”
Lady Lilac’s eyes flickered toward Lady Melodic, who nodded.
“That’s true,” Lilac answered, albeit apprehensively.
“What did he divulge to you about Jovian?”
“I really don’t want to talk about this anymore,” she said, wiping a quiet tear from her eye.
“This symbol,” Artemis said, taking the paper from his pocket and opening it in front of her, “What does it mean?”
Lady Lilac slowly looked up from her lap, staring at the paper. Another tear streamed down her cheek.
“I don’t want anything to do with this,” she whispered.
Artemis took a deep breath, mulling over her body language and his own patience. “He’s dead, Lady Lilac.”
“What?” she asked, her eyes growing wide.
“I sought the bounty. I tracked him down through the Capitol but I was not the first to find him. Those who got to him before me did him in.”
Lady Lilac trembled and covered her hand with her mouth.
“Did he tell the others?” she asked through a shaking hand, “Do they know about me?”
“I don’t know,” Artemis answered, “The other men did not survive the subsequent encounter — I was not pleased that they killed my bounty.”
Lady Lilac gulped, and folded her hands in her lap.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“I want to know why Jovian was willing to kill his servant. Information is slim, but the men who were after him seemed to want a particular piece of paper that he had in his possession. One with this symbol on it. Since Lady Melodic let me know that you had spoken to the servant, I wanted to speak with you. I was told that you might know something about what he had figured out. Now, my Lady,” Artemis scooted closer to Lilac, and lowered his voice, “If I was able to figure out that you and the servant corresponded, it is likely that Jovian will too. Perhaps he already knows. If you help me, if you tell me why Jovian would kill the servant for what he knew, then I can bring him to justice.”
Lady Lilac stared at Artemis for a moment, and then chuckled.
“Are you mad?” she asked “Justice? Who will bring Lord Jovian to justice? He’s practically got the Magistrate’s consent to do as he pleases here. People are afraid to get on his bad side.”
“It’s worth nothing that most people are also afraid to get on my bad side,” Artemis responded, staring defiantly at Lady Lilac.
“Fine,” she said, “But give my your word that this conversation does not leave this room. You musn’t ever name me as your source, or I’ll be — ”
“You have my word, my Lady.”
Once again, Lady Lilac stole a sideways glance at Lady Melodic, who nodded in encouragement. Lady Lilac wiped the remaining tears from her face and straightened up.
“He had been appointed as Lord Jovian’s closest confidant. Lord Jovian had recently taken to longer trips outside of Moorlin, and trusted this servant — ”
“Did he have a name? The servant?”
“McClain,” Artemis scribbled the name on the back of the paper.
“But while Jovian was away, McClain found something in Jovian’s study—a book, and he became fixated on it.”
“A book?” Artemis repeated.
“Yes. And in this book McClain found the symbol, the one Jovian uses for his bloody cult. He kept going on and on about the symbol, saying that the book had this whole explanation for the symbol and its origins, and that most peculiarly, it was not written by any known author, and was not printed by any known press in Moorlin or the incorporated counties outside of the region.”
“So where was it printed then?”
“That’s the crazy part. McClain thought that the book was stolen from some place else. Some place far, far away, and that Lord Jovian had been hiding this fact from everyone. He thought that Lord Jovian’s long trips out of Moorlin were to this other place.”
“But that’s rubbish,” Artemis said, thumbing the paper, “It was probably just written from a small press in Moorlin.”
“McClain believed it was genuine. That it was from another place sufficiently as advanced as Moorlin.”
“But there’s been no region recorded outside of the incorporated counties of Moorlin that are any where near as advanced as Moorlin. Not even enough to print.”
“Which is precisely why Jovian wanted him dead,” Lady Lilac whispered, “He had discovered something not even the Magistrate knew about, something Jovian had been keeping a secret. He has been bringing back these trinkets from some far off place and presenting them as his own, like he’s some god, like he’s — ”
“Where is this book?” Artemis interrupted.
“In Jovian’s study.”
“Of course,”Artemis groaned.
“There’s one more thing. One more thing that McClain said. But I don’t believe it, and I don’t want to impress upon you that I would believe any of it, or any of what Jovian says for that matter.”
Lady Lilac took a deep breath, fiddling once more with her dress.
“McClain told me that there was a door, in Jovian’s study. That Jovian would go through the door for sometimes days at a time. He said when he’d open the door, a great white light would shine out into the study, and when Jovian closed it behind him, the light disappeared.”
“What was behind the door?”
“Nothing,” Lady Lilac said, leaning closer to Artemis, “On the night McClain took the page out of that book, he opened the door and found that it was an empty closet. He said that somehow, when Jovian opened the door, it led to some place else, some place far away.”
Artemis reached into his pocket, and pulled out the torn page that he had found on the servant — the one that Jovian’s men were after. He unfolded it, carefully, and showed it to Lady Lilac.
“Did he ever show this to you?” Artemis asked. Lady Lilac wiped her tears, nodding.
“Yes,” she said quietly, “That’s it, the one from his — ”
THUMP, THUMP, THUMP.
A loud knock came from the door. Everyone became still.
“Oh god,” Lady Lilac whimpered.
A voice echoed from behind the door, “This is the 3rd Platoon Captain of the Air Marshals, open this door.”
“The room is occupied!” shouted Lady Melodic.
“We’re here to take one of your girls into custody, Lady Melodic. You have five seconds to open this door.”
Lady Melodic turned to look at Blithe, who shrugged and pressed his cane against the floor.
Lady Melodic mouthed, “Do something — ” but was interrupted by the sound of the door shattering. The Air Marshals kicked in the the door and stepped through the wreckage. Lady Melodic looked around at the mess, horrified.
“How dare you destroy my property!” she roared.
“We’re here for Lady Lilac. This can be quick and painless if you cooperate,” the captain spotted Artemis, “Well fuck me — Artemis Blithe, eh? Booking a room with Melodic herself? And Lilac? You must get paid a pretty piece these days.”
“You’re welcome to join,” Artemis said.
“So it’s true what they say about you?” the captain scowled.
“I’m sure there’s truth to a lot of what’s said about me,” Artemis responded.
“The girl, Lady Melodic,” the captain roared, “She is to be taken into our custody on orders of the Magistrate. Will you comply?”
“On what charges?” Lady Melodic asked.
The captain laughed, and took slow steps toward Lady Melodic, “Interfering with the orders of the Magistrate is a Principal Crime punishable by death. We have strict orders to bring Lady Lilac in for questioning. Will you comply? Or will you continue to impede this arrest?”
Lady Melodic pursed her lips, fuming.
“Thank you,” the captain said, passing Lady Melodic with his other men and picking up Lady Lilac.
“No! Please no, this is Jovian’s doing! He’ll have me killed!” Lady Lilac cried out in terror.
“Blithe,” Lady Melodic pleaded, “Don’t just stand there!”
“This is not my jurisdiction, my Lady,” he responded, placing his hat back onto his head. Lady Melodic turned, helplessly, and watched as the Air Marshals carried a kicking and screaming Lady Lilac through the broken door, down the steps, and out into the foggy streets of the fourth tier.
“You said you weren’t followed,” Lady Melodic yelled, turning on Artemis, her monocle glowing as hot as her fury.
“Then please explain why two Air Marshals just broke into my residence, kicked down my door, and kidnapped one of my girls.”
“Well technically, you are breaking the law by operating this brothel within the county of Moorlin. That’s reason enough for them to enter the premises.”
Lady Melodic’s mouth hung open, and her hand twitched toward her dress, which Artemis suspected was concealing a weapon.
“I’m her best chance,” Artemis added quickly, “Those Air Marshals would have come for her whether I was here or not. I suspect that Jovian is involved.”
“You’ve bitten off more than you can chew this time, Blithe.”
Artemis took out his paper and stared at the symbol and the notes he had written. It was as though Lord Jovian was staring out of the paper, like the symbol was a portal directly to his thoughts. A strange force gathered somewhere near his forehead, pulling him closer toward the paper. He crumpled it up, shoving it deep within his coat pockets. Artemis gazed out the window, looking at the swirling gray mist and the nothingness it held up. Somewhere, through the chasm of fog, Lord Jovian plotted his next move.
“I need to get that book,” Artemis said.
“What?” Lady Melodic asked, ceasing her pace around the room.
“I need to get into Lord Jovian’s study.”
“Ha,” Lady Melodic scoffed, “You’re the last man they’ll let in there. If I have had half a mind I would cancel the show tonight…” Lady Melodic trailed off.
“Show?” Artemis asked.
“Lord Jovian’s men ordered a burlesque show tonight.”
“At his manor?”
“Yes, of course, where else — oh nevermind, Blithe! Don’t pretend to be above this, Blithe, now is not the time to act high and — ”
“Quite the contrary, Lady. I may be able to help. Let me accompany your dancers tonight.”
“Are you thick?” Lady Melodic asked, her arms folded across her chest, “You think anyone is going to let you near Lord Jovian’s manor, especially after finding you with my girl they just apprehended? Not a chance.”
“I doubt they’d recognize me, my Lady,” Artemis said, taking off his hat and coat, “You did say burlesque, didn’t you?”
Lady Melodic’s monocle swiveled and whirred, looking Artemis up and down.
“You can’t be serious.”
Artemis tucked his cane under his arm. He pulled a stopwatch out of his trench coat, checking the time.
“What time is the show?”
“It’s an hour. Blithe, you can’t be — ”
“Plenty of time.”
Journal entry 341:
Lonely were the nights I would try to bury my head beneath my pillow, helplessly hoping to drown out the volcanic nature of my abusive father. He had an opaque presentation as a docile, polite man. “I’m a recovering alcoholic,” he’d say — which was actually true. When I was young my mother told me it was the drinking that made him act up, and that as he recovered things would get better. For a while I believed it.
She’d drop the dishes every once in a while and wince as she bent over to clean them up. Some days I’d catch her hesitating at the floor of the stairs, taking deep breaths, before beginning the limped journey upward.
On nights when they’d yell, my father would come in after and tell me he was sorry — that parents fight. It’s a sign that they love each other, he’d say. He would read me Dr. Seuss until I fell asleep.
I never fell asleep.
And I still won’t read those stories.
One day I was home sick from school and my mother put on the television. Spotting the cute little kid from Home Alone, she left the channel on and went to the kitchen where she made me tea.
But it wasn’t Home Alone. It was some other movie where that cute, soft little boy played a violent, murderous child. I was entranced by the blatancy. I didn’t exclaim, or call my mother to change the channel. In the end, the mother (through circumstances I no longer remember), was laying on the edge of an ocean cliff, her two sons dangling from either hand, begging for her to save them.
She let go of the little boy from Home Alone, saving the other child. The image of the waves, a bloodied red, washing over the boy’s body as it lay sprawled on the rocky coastline below, stuck with me.
Some nights I’d dream it was me lying on those cliffs, draped on my stomach, gravel digging at my arms, holding my mother and father from each hand. At first, I genuinely struggle — who do I save? But my father says “I love you” and without hesitation I drop him. My mother climbs up the cliffside and sighs out the entirety of the Pacific air front. We watch together as my father tumbles downward, bouncing from rocks, imagining each point of contact to coincide with the bruises he left her.
He tumbles for hours.
Whenever I see that boy from Home Alone, I grin. He’s older and matured, with this rubbery, almost mischievous smile. I’ve always felt as though he’s been in on it, and in those moments we share the vindictive sense of secrecy.
The night I discovered the doors was also the night I killed my father.
At least I think I did.
It was also the night I kissed my mother goodbye and told her it was over.
It was also the night I left home.
And it was also the night I kept running.
I was fourteen. My mother was getting over a terrible cold, and for whatever reason, they didn’t fight that night. I heard my father say goodnight to my mother and shut their bedroom door. After a few moments of silence, I heard him walk slowly and heavily down the hall. My light was off, and door closed, and I could see his shadow halt just outside my room.
He had never hit me, and so in that moment I was more confused than scared. He stood there for what must have been nearly an hour, before opening my door. I pretended I was asleep. For a few minutes I kept my eyes closed and listened to him breath. Then carefully, I peeked through my eyelids, finding his eyes glowing like white marbles.
I still don’t know how I knew — but I did. My heart began beating faster. I began sweating.
“No…” I whispered. He walked toward me. I gripped my sheets.
To this day those moments of anticipation, prior to him forcing himself on me, were the most horrific moments I’ve ever experienced. He shut the door behind him, and the glow from the hallway made him appear as an ominous phantom, a blocky shadow with a halo casting his periphery. I felt heavy in the bed, and my mind was so focused on the inevitability of what was to follow that I could not will myself to move.
His hand found my ankle — rubbed up my leg.
“No,” I whimpered.
He wasn’t a particularly expressive man, and consequently he was rarely affectionate.
That was the first night he touched me, in all its obscenity.
I began breathing faster, thinking,
What can I say to make him stop? What do I do? Why is he doing this? No. No, no, no,
“No!” I shouted — but his hand found my mouth, pressing so hard that my head sunk into the mattress. I began flailing my arms, so deeply terrified that I thought it was him moving about. I was so detached, so instinctively driven that I could not control myself.
I screamed into his palm.
The light from under the door illuminated him still. He was a giant shadowy mass. He moved himself over.
On top of me.
I thought I tasted vomit. I thought I tasted tears.
I thought I heard the howling of winds.
His heat was stifling. The dark blob of his head moved toward mine — he smelled of mouthwash. It took the sound of his belt unbuckling for me to fully writhe.
I couldn’t — he was going to — I’d never be able to — please, no — don’t –
“No!” My fist found his nose.
It found it again.
Each blow to his nose pushed my arm back toward my bed, where I used the spring of the mattress to launch my arm upward over, and over, and over. He rolled off of me.
I thought nothing but of escape. To be alone. The room was hot with his breath and body. He pushed himself off the floor, reaching for me.
I thought I heard the howling of winds.
He pushed his hand up my gown.
I heard the howling of winds.
I kicked, and he fought for a grip.
I hear the howling of winds.
A few white flakes scattered from under the door, melting in the heat.
I ran toward the door, hearing him stand. I ripped it open as he lunged for me.
An enormous field stretched out in front of me beyond the plane of the door. Dark, towering trees swayed in the gale of the blizzard.
I jumped to the side. My father dove past, missing me, and skidded on his stomach through the snow. He rose to his knees — his pants around his ankles. He did not turn around. All I heard was the wind.
I slammed the door, and the wind was gone.
A violent tremor overtook me. I backed down onto the floor and wrapped my arms around my knees. Snot flowed from my face and I cried through painfully full gasps. I was hysterical.
I don’t know how long I stayed on the ground that night, but I soaked my gown completely with tears.
I approached the door slowly, my arm a shaking blur.
What will I say to him when I open the door? Will the pain of the snow make him worse? Will he use that against me? Will he hurt me?
I pulled open the door.
The hallway light shone like the sun, and I squinted. The paintings on the wall looked unusually drab. I could hear the electricity buzzing. The leaky tub faucet that had as of late become white noise was beautifully metronomic.
I shut the door.
He must be so mad. And cold — freezing.
I opened it.
The hallway light was less piercing.
Closed, and opened.
Over, and over.
For a while, I ignored what I saw through the door on that night. I had gone into my mother’s room, my gown an amorphous mixture of my tears and my father’s blood, and told her that everything would be okay. I kissed her on the cheek and told her to go to sleep. She wiped my tears away, and had this knowing look on her face.
She didn’t know. She thought the blood was mine. And as she walked down the hall toward my room, I ran. I ran for miles in my gown, barefoot beneath the moon like an animal. Although the next day I’d feel the soreness of unprotected feet, I went bounding down the streets of my town, my strides like thunder on the asphalt — I was a storm.
Weeks later, I wrote the following letter to the detectives in my hometown, who had attributed the disappearance of my father and me to my mother:
I killed my father. It was not my mother. I don’t know if you’ll be able to find him. I couldn’t tell you where he is — even if you asked me.
It was mostly the truth — although for a few months after I pushed him into the blizzard I expected to hear the news of my reanimated father walking into the police station.
It’s still funny to think about.
It took a while for me to understand how the doors worked. I initially thought it only came to me in times of immense emotional peril until, finding myself in need of a place to pee, I walked out of a restaurant door in Reno and found myself in the bathroom of some lofty, hotel palace in New York City.
When I first got the hang of it, I did it quite often. Each door I passed through felt like an entire world’s distance away from my past. And I wish I could say that I reached out to my mother. That I comforted her. And asked her if she was okay.
I didn’t. I wanted her to start over. With literally everything. Perhaps that can be framed as a selfish decision, but I don’t regret it.
And as for my father…well, I learned something. That the relationships we ground in blood are all a farce. We construct that meaning out of a desire to possess some intrinsic bond, something deeper than what we can express — greater than ourselves. But blood — it means nothing. It’s an excuse. It’s a nebulous rationale to behave in an expected way.
And all it takes is the first broken expectation to realize that blood doesn’t love you. Blood doesn’t hold you. Blood doesn’t understand that you are uniquely deserving of dignity in your own, manifest right.
Blood just makes you bleed.
– let the door shut behind her.
“Watch it!” someone yelled, dodging her as she stepped out onto the sidewalk. She pushed through the crowd until she reached the edge of the street. An enormous hill stretched up to her left. At the top, just edging over the precipice, was a cable car. She looked at the sign to her right.
She had come through another door just a few blocks away a few months back. A small pub was open, and that night she stayed there until closing.
She headed toward Market and pointed herself toward the bay, weaving in and out of the people in their scarves, laden with posh bags containing even more posh goods, and found Kearny. She walked toward North Beach, finding a hole-in-the-wall pizza joint.
It was greasy, cheesy bliss. She hadn’t eaten for almost a day, having spent a majority of it held up in a jail cell in Paris.
That trip had been her first time going to France.
Believe it or not.
Usually she ran from petty grievances, like trespassing.
Come to think of it, it’s almost always trespassing.
But Paris was a particularly poor example — it was the first time in a while that she had resorted to stealing. She had been wandering for days, enjoying being lost in such a new place, when she happened upon a rather bourgeois party in an elegant hotel. After watching from a café across the street, she decided to use a maintenance door at the closest subway station to pass onto the second floor of the hotel — the peculiar smell of the rail cars lingered with her when she entered the cologne-laden halls of the party.
For a few hours she mingled, drank, and made conversation. She was fortunate enough that the party was large — the patrons seemed unlikely to recognize an unfamiliar face. A few guests in particular seemed amused with her accent. And so she stayed, drinking at the bar, chatting with them as they tried to guess where she was from.
They never did figure it out.
Later that night she wandered around the hotel, tipsy from hours spent on cocktails. On a whim, she tried a door and found it to be unlocked. The hotel suite was roomy and chic. A few suitcases were stacked in the foyer. A full kitchen and a king size bed were on either side, separated by a thin fish tank that divided the space along the length of the room. On the far wall, perched beneath the window, was a circular alcove with a bathtub.
She traced her finger along its edge. The sun had long set, and the city glowed through the thin pane. She walked to the bed — freshly made — and sprawled out on it. A small closet door next to the nightstand would be her escape if the guests happened to return.
Truly, she hadn’t intended on falling asleep.
She woke up to the police officers gently shaking her. It was 5:27 AM — the guests had been out late. The officers spoke French, and as she struggled to gather what they said, their tone grew more and more stern.
“Sorry, wrong room,” she said, holding her hands out in an innocent gesture. She tried to edge around them toward the hallway door, but one of them reached for her.
Shit. The closet then.
She ducked beneath the grab and made a dive for the closet door.
Somewhere far away, somewhere dark, somewhere where I can hide.
Darkness — musty air.
And just as her hand clasped the handle, an officer grabbed her by the shoulder and pulled her back.
At the station, they dug out her pockets. Before falling asleep she had grabbed a wad of money on the nightstand and shoved it in her pocket. Whenever she stole, she told herself it would fund some elaborate vacation. Somewhere she had never been. And in her head it was always by plane that she traveled — she was aware that such means were unnecessary, given the doors, but traveling by normal methods had become exciting to her.
The officers told her that her stay would be longer upon discovering that she had stolen money. Sitting in the cell, she cursed herself, realizing that she may have gotten off okay if it hadn’t been for the pocketed cash.
I’m sure I could have pulled off the, “I was drunk and opened the wrong door” thing.
After many hours in the cell, she asked to make a phone call. They walked her over to a desk, and after spotting a door down the hall, she dashed for it and burst through it, ultimately finding herself in the door shop with the elderly woman.
After the pizza, she continued wandering around the cold, misty streets of San Francisco. She wound up at a nightclub — more for the sake of warmth than anything else. She sat in a plush booth near the DJ, who played music from a raised stage. After a few beers, she struggled to stifle her laughter, watching as the dancing faded from stiff knees to feats of flex.
A more upbeat song almost tempted her to join when she was suddenly overcome with an obtrusive sense of silence.
She flinched, looking around.
When she first began learning how to control the doors, she was frequented by bouts of sensation. It was like another sense entirely — she spent many years tuning into the nuances.
She shuddered again. A sense of solitude washed over her, raising goose bumps. Standing in her booth, she looked around the club.
What door is this coming from? It grew stronger — but no door called to her.
At the bar.
There, across the dance floor, perched stoically on a bar-stool, was the source. In the strobe from the DJ’s lights she could see — it was a boy.
Why am I feeling this? Her mind was racing. She could no longer hear the music.
The boy seemed not to notice her. Standing up, he gazed at the undulating mass of bodies in the music, turned, and made his way out of the club. She grabbed her jacket and raced after.
As she followed him down the dimly lit streets, she ignored the doors.
A theme park.
A hospital basement.
An art gallery.
He was feet from a stoplight when he stopped. Surprised by his sudden change of pace, she skidded to a halt. She was made aware of her panting — he had been walking fast. They stood for some time, the ambiguity diminishing with the fog.
A grocery store.
The White House.
A storage shed in Montana.
He began sprinting through traffic.
She took off after him, blinded by lights and the blaring horns of cars. She slammed into a bumper, nearly landing on the hood. She recovered quickly, nearly losing sight of him as he rounded a corner. She picked up the pace.
He was fast. As they wound their way down alleys and corners, the sense of solitude began growing. Every now and again, he’d glance over his shoulder, watching as she closed the gap.
At last they turned down a damp, dark alley that faded into the black shadow of narrow buildings. She leaned forward, gaining momentum.
Where is he going?
And then she felt it — a bizarre absence of her surroundings. In the shadows, she could see a crease along a door, a white glow growing along its cracks.
A door. A white beam of light stabbed out into the darkness.
In those last few moments, she saw the boy round the corner behind the door, his body becoming the crisp plane of a black silhouette as he entered the white room beyond.
Don’t close the door! she screamed internally, watching as the frame swung shut.
“Wait!” she shouted.
The bay, in its mysterious ubiquity, sighed at the perceived futility of her words, funneling the strength of wind down the cramped alley.
The door fluttered open.
She nearly dove through the frame, shielding her eyes from the intensity of white. It took five more steps to reduce her momentum — she stopped and looked around. It was a rare thing for her to feel lost or confused, having grown accustomed to quick escapes. With the entire world always just beyond a door, she realized that she had begun to feel surprisingly claustrophobic.
She was surrounded by white — stark, overbearing white.
She could perceive no walls, yet there was depth. She swayed, dizzied for a moment, having lost sight of any point of reference, before stabilizing herself by holding her arms out in front of her.
“Hello?” she called.
She turned around, looking for the door through which she came, but found nothing but the same, vacant white.
With her arms out in front of her, she edged forward, looking for some anchoring surface. After several strides she stopped.
Where the hell did he go?
“Hello?” she called again.
She heard shuffling behind her and whipped her head around, finding nothing.
What did I feel? It was different, and distinct from the doors. It was the same intangible sensation, but its origin was from the boy, she was sure.
“Look can you just come out? I know about the doors…I’ve never found anyone else that can do this.”
A few black locks of hair materialized a few feet in front of her. Slowly, the rest of the boy came forward, stepping out from beyond what appeared to be a white wall she hadn’t noticed, its edges having blended into the room. As the boy stepped fully out, she moved her hand forward in an effort to feel the wall, but found nothing.
“What was that?”
“A door,” he said simply.
“Where did it go?”
“I don’t know,” he responded, “They only appear when I want them too.”
“What is this place?”
“I thought you said you can do this?”
“I can, but not to places like this,” she said, looking around once more, astounded by the sheer emptiness of the room.
“Oh, you’re one of them.”
“One of them — what do you — do you mean there’s…” she stuttered. The boy cocked an eyebrow and looked at her.
“How long have you been doing this?” he asked.
“Years. Five, seven, more. I don’t know anymore.”
“And they’ve never come to you?” he asked suspiciously.
“Who the fuck are they?”
“Jesus, do you have a lot to learn.”
“Will you slow down? What are you talking about?” she said taking a step closer to him. He withdrew and began walking away from her.
“Don’t touch me,” he said, sounding frightened. She put her hands up in an innocent plea.
“I’m sorry, just…talk me through this. Where are we?”
The boy took a deep breath and looked her in the eyes as though he were assessing her character. She held his stare, waiting for him to answer.
“I call it the Conduit.”
“Is it…is it real?” she asked quietly. The boy laughed sheepishly.
“Depends on how you define real, I suppose. And I guess I’m no expert, but hell, seems real enough to me.”
The boy scratched his head and reached out to his right. His hand gripped nothing in particular, but as he bent his arm a door appeared, opening in front of her.
It was sunrise over an ocean. Huge, billowing clouds drifted above. A wooden deck glistened from the moist ocean air, reflecting the subtle pinks from the new morning. It was a cruise liner — the passengers were likely sleeping.
“Conduit,” the boy began, “because this is the place that connects all the doors to each other. Whenever I go through the doors,” he gently shut the door, “I have to come through here.”
She reached out for the door, and again found nothing. She caught him grinning.
“How big is this place?” she asked. The boy looked over his shoulder, and nodded with his head.
“Oh, pretty large I’d say. You get a sense for it once you’ve been here long enough. Want to take a walk?”
They walked without direction — steering into the white, for a few moments making barely a sound.
“When I was young, I was playing hide and go seek,” he said, perhaps sensing her urgency to know, “and I found this place. I opened the side door to a barn, and wound up here. I had to have been six, maybe seven years old. It didn’t strike me as odd that the barn would be this giant, dimensionless chamber on the inside. I stayed forever, thinking I would be found. I wasn’t. When I came out I found my parents worried sick about me. I told them I was in the barn — in the white room. I think in their anxiety they ignored the way I described the barn. They wrote it off as my imagination. I didn’t find it again until I was a teenager. I had this inexplicable curiosity about a door in a hallway at my high school — like I just had to know what was behind it. And then here I was.”
“Did you remember having been here before?”
“Yes — which was a trip. Once I stepped into the room, I instantly knew that it was the same place from the barn.”
“So, what — you just open doors anywhere?”
“Well, not exactly. There are doors in here. Permanent ones. I can sense them, and so finding them is quite easy. But I can also open doors anywhere I want. And they appear to be just mine.”
“Can anyone else get in and out of this room?”
“The only way to get out is in—everyone who can control the doors has to pass through here to go anywhere else. Which is why so many people avoid it—getting out means finding an existing, permanent door that will lead you out. It means you have to wade your way through the white until you find a door. I’m fortunate in that I can create doors in the nothingness. I can always find a way out. I still haven’t met anyone who can open doors in here the way I can.”
“So there’s more of us?”
“Us? Sure…I don’t really know what or who we are.”
“You know what I mean — door people.” The boy laughed again.
“Door people? That’s a new one.”
“Hey, what did you mean by — ”
“Oh check this one out,” he said, interrupting. Again, he reached out into the white, finding a door and opening it. She poked her head through. It was dark, but she squinted, making out large metal boxes around her. The pressure in her ears shifted — she shook her head and withdrew.
“What is that?”
“Air Force One,” he said, stifling a childlike smile.
“Fuck that,” she said, slamming the door shut.
She found her hand wrapped around the handle.
“Is this a permanent one?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said, walking away.
She reopened the door.
This time, there was a beach. It was twilight, and the the waves were crashing softly. A crab scuttled into the frame — she knelt down and eased it back onto the sand.
“How did you do that?” the boy asked. She closed the door and looked at him.
His jaw hung open—he looked floored.
“I told you — I can open the doors too.”
“But this is a permanent one,” he said, striding over and opening the door.
Air Force One.
“A permanent door frame,” she said, “physically speaking, right? Where it leads can still be manipulated though.”
“I’ve never seen this before. And you do this outside of the Conduit? Opening the doors, to anywhere?”
“Yes, of course,” she responded.
The boy looked over his shoulders, as though looking for someone else. He lowered his voice.
“Do you work for him?” he asked.
“What?” she responded.
“Do you work for him?”
“I don’t know who you are talking about.”
The boy squinted at her and rubbed at his arm.
“Look, I haven’t met everyone who comes through the Conduit, but everyone I have met works for him.”
“Look kid, I don’t know what the hell you’re getting on about — ”
The boy suddenly stepped toward her.
“You need to get out of here,” he said quietly.
“You need to leave.”
“Fuck off, I just got here, and I have some questions for you still.”
“They told me if I ever found anyone in here who wasn’t supposed to be, that wasn’t working directly for him, that I need to tell them right away,” he whispered.
“Look, I’ve been running for a while, I’m not worried about having to do it some more.”
“No, damnit, this is different!” he said, growing angry. Something about his tone made her stomach shift — he had a bizarre sense of sincerity about him.
“Because you’ve never run from him.”
For whatever reason, his words packed a particular punch. The size of the room, however imperceptible, seemed to shrink around her.
“Who are you so afraid of?” she asked.
“You don’t want to find out.”
She looked the boy up and down, watching his nervous twitches.
“Why were you running from me?” she asked.
“You heard me — why run?”
“I thought you worked for him.”
“Don’t you work for this him fellow too?”
“I did. But I took something I shouldn’t have. Me and another guy.”
“And where is this other guy?”
“Dead. I would be too if I didn’t run.”
“Ha,” she scoffed, “Well have fun running. That isn’t my style, so suit yourself.”
“Look,” the boy said, grabbing her arm, “I can explain more but please, can we just get out of here?”
“And go where?”
“Anywhere I…well, anywhere we want.”
She smiled at how new such a statement sounded to him.
“You choose,” she said, trying to sound calm.
She would get her answers soon enough.
“I have just the place,” he said through a smile.
He reached toward her shoulder, gripped the nothing that surrounded them, and pulled open a door. He passed through it, and from the other side said,
“You’re going to love this view.”
She took one curious, longing look back at the Conduit, in its plain and ubiquitous freedom.
She passed through the frame and –
January 26, 46 years Post-Migration
Ages ago, Zyz found the transition past the thin limb of Earth’s atmosphere to be exhilarating. The weightlessness, despite being disorienting, was somehow freeing—it felt like being born. As the Lift ascended its tether toward the docking station, she unbuckled herself from her seat and floated steadily in the center of the room. She wrapped her arms around her shins and tilted her head back, looking out the window and into the darkness of space.
“We are arriving at the docking station,” the orb said.
“Thank you,” Zyz replied. She pushed herself away from a nearby chair and positioned herself next to the Lift’s door. The chamber came to a slow and steady stop. The entire docking process was lengthy, and she waited as the coupling units engaged, pressurization tests hissed, and ultimately the doors opened.
First she was met with a cold blast of air. It had a sterile, dry smell to it. Almost instantly she fell into her old ways, as though the air had summoned buried instincts. She kicked off a nearby wall, grabbed the pipe near the circular passage, pulled herself along a series of shelves, and did a series of mid-air kicks and pushups to guide herself around the twists and turns to the private Jupiter Enterprises docking room.
There was already a shuttle waiting for her. She floated in, found a seat, and buckled in.
“I will alert Director Laurel that you are on the way,” the orb said.
Zyz nodded. After fastening her seatbelt, the cabin glowed red and the familiar voice came over the intercom.
“Hold on,” it said. Zyz was pressed back into her seat with tremendous force as the shuttle erupted away from the docking station. She used to joke with her coworkers about the tourists who came to Jupiter Enterprises—most of them passed out due to the intense forces associated with traveling there. The shuttle zipped away from the Lift station and toward the stars. Zyz kept a keen eye out the window, looking for the Jupiter Enterprises orbital station.
Slowly, it came into view. It was an enormous, spherical structure that was completely black and reflective. Light bounced and bent on its surface, at times giving it the appearance of a black hole. It was most easily spotted by the void it created against the backdrop of the cosmos. A small, black splotch appeared in the distance, growing as the shuttle flew closer.
In the peak of Jupiter Enterprises’s meteoric rise, there were constant streams of shuttles ferrying people to and from the facility and the Lift docking station. People paid enormous sums of money to vacation in the Manifold, which was hosted on the servers of Jupiter Enterprises. It was, of course, something Director Laurel had always intended, and the company was constantly capitalizing on it. Every corner of the world had been canvassed with Manifold marketing, compelling the willing to Step Into Creation. A slogan which, early in her career, Zyz was thrilled by.
As her shuttle approached the orbital headquarters, a small door slid open on its surface. The glowing entryway heralded her arrival—her shuttle was swallowed in white light. As the shuttle touched down, Zyz felt gravity return to her. She fought off a few moments of dizziness before exiting the shuttle.
“Well, well,” she heard someone say as she stepped down onto the flight deck’s floor, “I bet you never thought you’d step foot in here again.”
It was Director Laurel, leaning casually against the flight deck’s wall.
“The truth is,” Zyz said, approaching him, “I always had this nagging feeling that for some reason, I’d end up back here.”
“Thank you for coming. I trust this little guy treated you kindly?” Laurel said, nodding toward the orb.
“Of course,” Zyz responded.
“Great,” he said, turning toward the orb, “We’re done here.”
“Very well sir,” the orb replied, floating off across the flight deck and disappearing into a hallway.
“Well, we shouldn’t waste any time,” the Director said, “Follow me so I can bring you up to speed.”
Zyz followed the Director down the narrow, white hallways. There were a series of rings that rotated around the circumference of the station to create artificial gravity — the administrative, engineering, visitor, and housing zones. She had landed in the administrative ring. During her time at Jupiter Enterprises, Zyz had worked in the engineering ring. There, the hallways were wider, and painted with stripes of yellow and orange that crossed paths and ducked down adjacent hallways, leading to other sections. She made it up to the administrative ring a few times a week just for the lunch, which was always better than the other rings.
As Zyz continued to follow the Director down the plain white walls, she noticed how silent everything was. It was unnerving, seeing the hallways empty. Jupiter Enterprises was at one point a bustling, metropolis of an orbital station. At times it felt rather like the old airports of Earth — which all but disappeared upon the implementation of PEZ travel — with its arrival and departure halls, announcements over the intercom, and people carrying their personal effects.
As she followed the Director down the empty hallways, she imagined that history, seeing them pass by her like ghosts. The Director walked them into an old conference room with a large, oblong table that divided the room lengthwise. He sat down at the opposite end and motioned for Zyz to do the same. She stared across the table, crossing her legs.
“Real quiet around here these days,” Zyz said.
“Perceptive,” the Director said, tapping his finger on the desktop. He appeared nervous.
“What’s going on?” Zyz asked, trying to tease it out of him.
“It is not just quiet here, as you have obviously noticed…it is empty. There is simply no one left. Not a single officer, or executive director. No tourists or maintenance workers. Gone — every one of them.”
Zyz eyed the Director closely. He paused with his finger tips pressed onto the table top.
“Where is everyone?” Zyz asked.
The Director shook his head.
“Don’t you see?” he asked, leaning back in his chair, “The Manifold. They all went into the Manifold.”
“Who would have possibly authorized that?”
“No one. Because by the time it happened, there was no one to stop them.”
“There’s protocol, Laurel, and — ”
“Fuck Protocol, Zyz.”
Zyz’s mouth hung open.
“Fuck protocol?” she repeated, “I was fired for breaking protocol.”
“Those were different times. Things were — ”
“You didn’t care then about the protocol, and you know it. That was a bullshit justification to get rid of me after I raised issues about the lack of oversight, which I specifically warned would lead to these exact circumstances.”
“You’re alone, Zyz!” the Director roared. “Alone!”
Zyz bit into her lip and breathed heavy through her nose. The Director clasped his hands together and rolled his head over his neck.
“I’m sure there are many things that could be said of the past, of your actions, and the judgement that was made to let you go. But whether we like it or not, humanity moved on…we evolved. Earth was never capable of sustaining us. The Manifold saved us—you know that.”
“But did it save us?”
“From warfare, disease, famine — of course.”
Zyz scoffed, running a hand through her hair.
“We’ve had this discussion before,” she said, “It’s physics. You are limiting human potential to the architecture of the Manifold.”
“I’m not asking you to believe in the Manifold, or what it has done for humans. I’m asking for your help. The human race has moved on, but not without consequence. It needs saving.”
“What is at stake here?”
“No, I mean — ”
“Zyz,” he interrupted, “The existence of the human race. The Manifold…it’s sick.”
“What are you talking about?”
The Director paused, looking for the first time as though he was being overcome with emotion.
“If we hadn’t fired you, what would you have decided to do? Shut it all down?” he asked.
“This is pointless…”
“It’s not pointless for me!” the Director said, his lip quivering. Zyz was shook by the raw display of emotions. “I am tortured, Zyz. Tortured by questions. Tortured by fear.”
“We all make mistakes, Director.”
“We shouldn’t have let you go.”
“The Company felt it was necessary. You shouldn’t torture yourself over that. I’ve moved on.”
The Director clasped his hands and stared at the top of the desk.
“Jack,” Zyz said softly. The Director looked up, as though he hadn’t heard his name for a long time. “What is going on?”
The Director looked up, slowly, and met her gaze across the table.
“People are dying, Zyz. And I can’t stop it.”
“Dying from what?”
“I don’t know. It’s obscured.”
“How is that possible, just check the — ”
“Damnit, Zyz. Look around you. Everything is gone. There are no more Planar Ethics Committees, no more engineers. It’s all gone. The Manifold has been left to its own devices. People have been born…born inside the Manifold. People with extraordinary abilities to restructure the very fabric of its reality. And in doing so, innocent people have lost their lives.”
“You said active planes were deleted.”
“Countless. There is something loose inside the Manifold, and this thing — ”
“They’re people too, Jack.”
The Director’s mouth hung open. He leaned back in his chair, moving his hands to his lap.
“After all this time?” he asked.
“Let’s not reopen old wounds, Jack.”
“These people in the Manifold, they were created — ”
“You want to know what I would have done?” Zyz roared, “If you hadn’t fired me? I would have demanded you recognize the reality of what you created. Something with rights. Tell me,” Zyz leaned over the table, “What’s the difference in there? Inside the Manifold? How do you determine what is alive?”
“We shouldn’t talk about this,” he said quietly.
“I shouldn’t have fucking come here.”
“You’re the only one who can do anything about any of this, Zyz.”
“Do it yourself,” she said, standing up, “I’m done here.”
“Zyz!” he shouted, “Don’t you get it? You’re the only one.”
Zyz stood at the end of the table, one finger lingering on its surface. She stared at the Director — his clothes, his chair, his grey hair. She turned around and looked at the empty white hallways of the administrative ring.
“You…” she muttered, “You aren’t…”
“Jesus, Jack,” she said, placing her hand over her mouth.
“I know this is hard — ”
“How could this happen?”
“Zyz, please. Sit down.”
“I’ll stand, thanks.”
An awkward silence followed. The hum of Jupiter Enterprises filled the gaps between them. The Director fidgeted in his chair.
“I went into the Manifold,” he began, “Shortly after you stepped down. I couldn’t take it anymore, Zyz. The more trips I took there, the more I saw of what was possible…it was beautiful. When the Great Migration happened, everything fell apart. The executives, the investors, the public…they all came. For many years, I suspected it to be true, that there was no one left — ” the Director vanished from his seat, and materialized next to her in a flash of light, “But I couldn’t bring myself to tell you.”
His holographic projection flashed flickered briefly before solidifying once more. Zyz sat down in the chair and rested her head in her hands.
“Zyz,” the Director said quietly, crouching down beside her, “I know this is hard. I know this brings up bad memories…essentially everything you had warned us about, it’s come true. But I need your help — humanity needs your help.”
“I can’t believe this…”
“Listen to me. You are the only one left. You are the only one who can stop whatever it is that is going on. Whatever this thing — this person, whoever it is, they need to be stopped, otherwise all of humanity might be — ”
“I need to think,” Zyz said suddenly, standing up and leaving the room.
“Zyz!” the Director shouted.
“Just give me a goddamn minute!” she yelled. She stormed away down the empty white hallways. After rounding a few corners, she whistled. The orb appeared moments later.
“When I quit, I asked them to keep my old room the same. Did they?”
“Good. Make sure I have access. I want to sleep.”
“Right away, Zyz,” the orb responded, floating quietly behind her as she zigged and zagged down the narrow halls, making her way toward the housing ring of Jupiter Enterprises.