Chapter no 13

This is how You Lose the Time War

Red’s o to catch a shadow.
She lays traps. She doubles back in time to build dead ends of history; she tangles strands. Her quarry, whose quarry she is in turn, slips free, leaving now a sound, now a taste on the air, nothing so grand as a thread caught on a thorn.

In downthread server farms couched in remnant icebergs’ hearts, she circles back upon her trail, glimpses the shadow, 1res her Aéchette pistol through rackspace gaps, birthing blue sparks.

In Asoka’s court, an acrobat, she climbs, Aips, turns, sifting a thousand-person crowd for a single predator, one watcher who should not be there. She smells the shadow, and smells it slip away.

She storms the falling walls of Jericho, and in dense streets she hears a footstep on stone that does not belong. She turns, draws, lets Ay. An arrow embeds itself in stone.

She races gravcycles through a crystal forest coursing with the brilliant pulse of human beings whose physical bodies have been rendered, like bacon fat, until the fragrance of their minds expands to 1ll all space. Whatever she is seeking, whatever’s seeking her, it does not catch her there, though she does not catch it in return.

She 1nds a pregnant possibility by a riverbed and waits. She does not know why she thinks the shadow will visit here, but she feels she’s growing to know the thing, its habits, when it visits her and when it keeps away. She seeds the air with nanobots, weaves servants through the grass; she sets drone spies and sentry cameras; she tasks a satellite to her service. She watches the river, cautious, quiet, for seven months. She blinks once, and when she opens her eyes, she feels the moment has passed: The shadow has been and gone, and she’s learned nothing. No traps have sprung, the nanobots failed to register a presence, the cameras have one by one turned oP, and the satellite orbits mute and broken.

Red aches for the letters she keeps behind her eye.

She cannot breathe. A great hand clutches her about the chest, squeezing. She feels trapped in her skin, bound beneath her skull. Dreams help, and memories, but dreams and memories are not enough. She wants to imagine a laugh. She must wait. She cannot wait.

Far, far upthread, she sits beneath something like a willow tree in a dinosaur swamp, holds a sumac seed between her teeth, and bites.

Red sits still for hours. Night falls. Wind rustles ferns. An apatosaur lumbers past, ruAing its feathers.

She lets herself feel. The organs that buPer her emotions from physical response shut down, and all she’s hidden washes over her. Her heart quakes. She heaves in gulps of breath, and she is so alone.

A hand settles on her shoulder. She catches the shadow’s wrist.

The shadow throws her, and she throws it in turn. They tumble through undergrowth; they crash against an enormous mushroom’s trunk. Small lizards scuttle out. The shadow’s afoot, but Red snares its leg in hers, brings it down. She goes for the joint lock, but her own leg’s locked in turn. She wriggles free, punches three, four times, each one blocked easily. Implants burn. Wings part from her back to vent waste heat; she hits hard. She catches the shadow in the ribs, but those bones do not break. The shadow Aoats behind her, touches her shoulder, and her arm goes limp. Red throws her weight back, snares its arm as she falls. They slip together in the mud. Red’s 1ngers hook to claws. She tries to 1nd a throat. Finds it. Clutches.

And somehow the shadow slips free and leaves her lying, panting, furious, alone in the mud.

She curses the stars that watch the dinosaur night. Red can bear the wait no longer.

She rises, staggers to a river, washes her hands. Pops out her left eye with her thumb and probes the socket until she 1nds the three sumac seeds. (The one she ate earlier was a fake.)

Fuck safety. Fuck the shadow. Red knows hunger now.

She eats the 1rst seed beneath the canopy.

She chokes. She curls around herself. She cannot breathe. She crumbles around her heart.

The organs, she remembers, are turned oP. This pain is new. She does not turn them on again before she eats the second seed.

Out in the swamp, great beasts echo her groan. She is not a person anymore. She is a toad; she is a rabbit in the hunter’s hand; she is a 1sh. She is, brieAy, Blue, alone with Red, and together.

She eats the third letter. Silence claims the swamp.

The aftertaste stings her tongue and 1lls her. She weeps, and laughs into her tears, and lets herself fall. They might 1nd her, kill her, here. She does not care.

Among the dinosaurs, Red sleeps.

Seeker, muddy, battered, torn, 1nds her sleeping, touches her tears with an ungloved hand, and tastes them before she goes.


Dear Strawberry,

Summer settles like a bee on clover—golden, busy, here then gone. There’s so much to do. I love this part of being embedded, love feeling thoroughly wrung out at day’s end: no recuperation ponds, no healing sap, no quiet green murmuring in my marrow—just sweat and salt and sun on my back, everyone loving their bodies while knowing their bodies, this beautiful dance.

We pick berries. We 1sh the rivers. We hunt ducks and geese. We tend the gardens. We organize festivals, light 1res, discuss philosophy, 1ght skirmishes where necessary. People die; people live. I have been laughing a great deal, this summer, and it has been so easy.

You say my letter found you in a moment of hunger. How to say what it means to me, that I might have taught you this—shared it, somehow, infected you with it. I hope it isn’t a burden at the same time that I want you seared by it. I want to sharpen your hungers fully as much as I long to satisfy them, one letter-seed at a time.

I want to tell you something about myself. Something true, or nothing at all.

Yours, Blue

PS. I’m so happy you read the Mitchison. Constantinople is difficult— but it helps sometimes to think of the book as moving through phases of storytelling time. Myth and legend give way to history, which gives way again to myth, like curtains parting and meeting again on either side of a performance. Halla begins in Mitchison’s Norse myths outside of book-time, and by the end has been absorbed—embedded, perhaps—into the myths of those she travelled with. All good stories travel from the outside in.

• • •

Dear Raspberry,


It’s not that I never noticed before how many red things there are in the world. It’s that they were never any more relevant to me than green or white or gold. Now it’s as if the whole world sings to me in petals, feathers, pebbles, blood. Not that it didn’t before—Garden loves music with a depth impossible to sound—but now its song’s for me alone.

Alone. I want to tell you about when I learned that word, really, with all of me. The reason I’m a tumbleweed, a dandelion seed, a stone rolling until she’s planted in place, then kicked up again.

We’re grown, I think you know—seeds planted, roots combing through time, until Garden repots us in diPerent soil. Our seeding points are so thoroughly embedded that what I mentioned before about approach is inconceivable: Garden goes to seed, blows us away, and we burrow into the braidedness of time and mesh with it. There is no scouring hedge to pass through; we are the hedge, entirely, rosebuds with thorns for petals. The only way to access us is to enter Garden so far downthread that most of our own agents can’t manage it, 1nd the umbilical taproot that links us to Garden, and then navigate it upthread like salmon in a stream. Which, if any of you could do, would mean we were vanquished already—if you had that kind of access to Garden, you could raze our whole Shift.

(I can’t—I shouldn’t tell you this. In spite of all, I keep thinking— this could be such a long con, this could be the information you wanted all along, this—but does it matter, really? The point of no return was millennia from now, kept folded up small and tea scented in a subcutaneous sack I grew beneath my left thigh. Not exactly a locket full of hair, but no reason that should be less grotesque to the disembodied, I suppose.)


I never mentioned, I think, the strand in which Garden planted the seed of me—“to begin my life with the beginning of my life” feels absurd to such as us, doesn’t it?—but it wasn’t anything special; Strand 141’s Albic parts, in the same year as the death of its Chatterton,

though I beg you not to cast my horoscope. When I was very small, still just barely a sprout of Garden rooted through a 1ve-year-old girl, I got sick. This wasn’t unusual—we’re often deliberately made sick, inoculated against far-future diseases, dosed with varying degrees of immortality, whatever it takes to make us into what we need to be when Garden releases us into the wholeness of the braid.

But this was diPerent. This wasn’t Garden infecting me to strengthen me; this was someone infecting me to get at Garden.

This should have been impossible. I was enmeshed. But something, somehow—I was compromised by enemy action. It has the quality of fairy tale to me; I was sleepy, in that space between dream and waking when one can’t be certain whether what one’s seeing is real or a storm of nanites rewiring your synapses.

(I had to deal with that once. It was unpleasant. I hope you never have to electrocute yourself to burn bugs out of your brain. Then again maybe that’s covered in basic training for your lot.)

I remember a kiss and something to eat. It was so kind, I couldn’t fathom it as unfriendly. As fairy tale as it gets, really. I remember bright light, and then—hunger. Hunger that was turning me inside out, hunger in the most primal way imaginable, hunger that obliterated every other thing—I couldn’t see, I was so hungry, I couldn’t breathe, and it was like something was opening up inside me and telling me to seeb. I think some part of me must have been screaming, but I couldn’t tell you which; my body was an alarm bell sounding. I turned all of myself toward Garden to be fed, to stem this, to stop me from disappearing—

And Garden cut me oP.

Which is standard operating procedure. Garden must endure. Garden can, does, has, will shed pieces, always, cuttings, Aowers, fruit, but Garden endures and grows stronger again. Garden couldn’t let the hunger reach beyond me.

I understand that now, but at the time . . . I had never been alone. And I think of you, making that aloneness for yourself apart from the others as a choice—but for me, I was only my own body, only my own senses, only a girl whose parents were running to her because she had a

bad dream. I touched their faces, and they were mine; I touched the bed I was on, smelled apples stewing somewhere outside. It was as if, in my own small way, I’d become Garden—so me in my wholeness, me in my 1ngers, in my hair, in my skin, whole the way Garden is whole, but apart.

The hunger simmered in me for a week, during which I ate so much my parents whispered of eggshell stews and hot pokers. I learned to hide it. And then, after a year, Garden took me back.

Grafted me back on as if we’d never severed, probed and peered and sorted through me, doused me in medicines and protection, scoured me inside and out. Nothing was found. My maturation had been sped up oddly, perhaps, but that was all. And after some keen scrutiny during the next few years, the fears that I’d been compromised were mostly laid to rest; nothing in the braid suggested corruption beginning from my strand. Important, too, to broadcast that the attempt at penetrating enmeshment had been unsuccessful (though it had succeeded—but as they never tried it again, Garden’s gambit there must have convinced the relevant parties). So Garden deployed me, made much of me, praised and elevated me, but always at something like arm’s length.

My eccentricities are tolerated: my love of cities, of poetry, my appreciation for being rootless, for being, in some ways, more Gardener than Garden, or Gardened. My appetites, that being Aooded with Garden can’t seem to sate.

You, though, Red—


• • •

My Apple Tree, my Brightness,


Sometimes when you write, you say things I stopped myself from saying. I wanted to say, I mant to mabe you tea to dvinb, but didn’t, and you wrote to me of doing so; I wanted to say, youv lettev liues inside me in the most liteval may 9ossible, but didn’t, and you wrote to me of structures and events. I wanted to say, movds huvt, but meta9hovs go betmeen, libe bvidges, and movds ave libe stone to build bvidges, hemn

fvom the eavth in agony but mabing a nem thing, a shaved thing, a thing that is move than one Shift.

But I didn’t, and you spoke of wounds.

I want to say, now, before you can beat me to it—Red, when I think of this seed in your mouth I imagine having placed it there myself, my 1ngers on your lips.

I don’t know what this means. This feels like being cut oP, again, in the strangest way—feels like teetering on the brink of something that will unmake me.

But I trust you.

Take these years of mine, take these seeds, and let them grow me something similar in reply? I miss the length of your letters.

Love, Blue

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