Chapter no 15

This is how You Lose the Time War

Gommandant summons Red to a 1eld office.
Blood, as usual, is everywhere. Mostly frozen, this time, which smells better.

The Agency has chosen a Russian front close to the main braid, where the Nazis have some trick of raising the dead—nothing supernatural, but nature has strange forms C20 scientists rarely guess. The gnawing corpses have a sharp, fungal odor when Red draws close enough, which suggests downthread intervention, the great adversary at work. The sky is mostly white, but the snow has stopped for now, and clear blue opens high up and far away.

The Soviet soldiers are scared and cold and hungry. They will die here. They will hold their post just long enough for Zhukov to reinforce another, more critical position behind them. They are brave boys and more than a few girls. They share their last spirits—songs, jokes from home, whatever they carry in their Aasks. Bravery won’t save them. Neither will the gallows-grim gravity their officers’ faces wear.

Other operatives appear and disappear, carrying reports or cases of weaponry or their comrades’ blanched, drained bodies. They bear trophies and tribute. Everyone looks scared. They 1t right in.

Altogether, a well-chosen office.

Usually Commandant operates upthread from some gleaming crystal citadel or other. At times the Agency has called Red to report to a bare platform orbiting an unfamiliar star, forgetting even to produce a humanlike superior she can address. The stars alone listen.

Commandant must have been decanted once—all her agents had. But she retreated to her pod long ago and now roams time and space as a disembodied mind, wedded to, webbed through, the Agency’s great hyperspace machines. She takes form only when she must, and when she does, she chooses any form that lies to hand, or none. Mostly she contemplates abstracts and calculates trajectories in time, considers her many agents as multidimensional vectors

and knots. Viewed from sufficient height, all problems are simple. All knots can be untied with a few deaths, or ten thousand.

Such remove has its place when the 1ght goes well. Decisions made far from the front are secure against insurgence, in1ltration.

Passing corpses, Red wraps herself more tightly in her coat. Not to guard her Aesh—she is barely cold, even in this death freeze—but to guard the small blue Aame inside her.

Loss begs immediate response. Decisions lose the luxury of distance. Commandant remains downthread, of course, but she’s made a local copy for moment-to-moment operations, damage containment, scouting, and that copy has climbed the braid into the past to chart the new threads Garden’s spun, the strands it has shifted, the knots it has tied.

Field offices are vulnerable, however. So they are built in bubbles of time, forti1ed against causes and ePects.

Red walks past three men struggling to restrain their fallen, infected comrade, past the doctor trying to stitch a cold-numbed wound with freezing 1ngers, and she knows that whatever happens here, all this will pass, and all these people die.


Red ducks through the Aap of the command tent.

Commandant stands before her, in the form of a big woman in an army uniform, wearing an apron, with bloody pliers in one hand. She holds them as if she is not used to holding things. Adjutants cluster near, bearing their reports on clumsy period tech: paper, mimeograph, map. A man sits unconscious, tied to a wooden chair, naked, bleeding from the mouth. The tent is warmer than outside, but it is not warm enough. His half-open eyes are lapis deep.

Red salutes.

“Get out,” Commandant tells her staP, and out they go. The man remains. He does not make a sound. Perhaps he does not notice, or he hopes they will not notice him.

For all practical purposes, they are alone. Red waits. Commandant paces. Her hands are bloody, and she does not seem to notice or care. Stolen worry lines her face. Those lines belong to the woman whose body Commandant now rides, but they suit her. The war has turned hard. Red imagines how

those pliers would feel in her own mouth, closing around her own molars or canines, and decides: If that’s hom this goes, fine. She keeps the Aame inside her safe.

“We’re in bad shape,” Commandant says. “Long, careful work on the adversary’s part, traps upthread and down, all executed by a single operative, triggering a cascade. I’d call it brilliant if it hadn’t put us so far on the back foot. But we count our blessings: Their new braid is weak. We can unpick it. And we will.” Commandant glances over, seems surprised. “At ease. Didn’t I say, at ease?”

Red stands at ease. Commandant’s uncertainty on so small a point as this worries her. Should she be worried? Isn’t she a traitor now?

“We’ve plotted a solution, through math and cruder methods.” She sets the pliers on a table, takes up a piece of paper, and oPers it to Red. “Do you recognize this woman?”

It is not easy to remain at ease. She takes the paper and makes herself look at the charcoal drawing the way someone would if searching their memory for a face glimpsed across a battle1eld, then forgotten. It occurs to Red, as she ponders the face that dwells within her dreams, that this is longer than she has ever dared to watch this particular face, in person—or even to linger on her memory.

The man in the chair whimpers.

Red doesn’t blame him. What does Commandant know? Is this a trap? If they knew, wouldn’t they kill her? Or do their plans run deeper?

“I recognize her,” she says, at last. “From the 1eld. I saw this face in the battle at Abrogast-882. She has others.” But always there’s a similar stillness about the eyes and a cruel, clever twist to the mouth. She shines through. Red does not say that last part.

“That’s where our observers took this likeness.”

The tent, suddenly, feels colder than outside. Observers. How long? What have they seen? She remembers her battle with the shadow. “I take it this is the operative who triggered the cascade.”

“And set it. EPective, and dangerous. As dangerous as you, in her own way.”

An opening. “I’ll raise her to the top of my target list.” And we will hunt and hunt in turn.

“Turn over the drawing,” Commandant says.

When Red took the paper, its back side was blank. Now it holds a multicolored snarl she is far more used to visualizing in three dimensions. She blurs her eyes, crosses them slightly, and topology emerges from the multicolor mess. A green thread, which she thinks should be blue, runs down the core of the braid—but it swerves here and there to intersect another, which is gray and should be red. How much ignorance can she fake and remain convincing? “I don’t understand.”

“So far as we can trace it, her paths upthread and down have formed this new braid’s core. But in these deviations, well—this gray line represents your own course.”

“We faced each other at Abrogast-882,” Red says. “Also, I think, in Samarkand.” What else would Commandant know? She sees through abstraction, tension, weight, through propositions and counterarguments. “Beijing.” How can Red explain away this topology that brings her, time and again, near Blue? She thinks and tries to look like she is not thinking.

“You mistake me,” Commandant replies. “We believe your paths have crossed because she has gone out of her way to cross them. Often subtly: upthread or down, alterations so small as to be almost undetectable.”

“What are you saying?” She knows what Commandant is saying, but she also knows what part she has to play.

“This operative has been grooming you. Her behavior suggests a fondness for grand gesture. You are being played. Subtly, perhaps so subtly you do not realize it yourself. Her masters want a weakness in our ranks.”

It could be true. It’s not, but it could be. She knows it’s not. She does. “I’m loyal.” This is not, as a rule, something loyal people say, but Commandant is too lost in thought to notice.

“We believe she wants to turn you. She’s seeding dissatisfaction. Little sense details you might not even notice. She is not trying to kill you: We have scanned you and found you clean.”

When was the scan? Who delivered it? What else did they 1nd?

“She is waiting for you to make an overture: to ask her a question, to initiate contact. Something so subtle it could plausibly escape our observations. That message is our gate. Through that, we strike.”

Outside, a lone artillery piece 1res for some reason. Red’s ears ring. The man in the chair moans. Commandant does not Ainch. She does not know she’s supposed to. Red should not feign stupidity before this woman, but she needs the time an explanation will buy her. “What do you suggest?”

“Are you familiar,” Commandant asks, “with genetic steganography?” This is one of those questions Red is not expected to answer.

“Our 1nest minds will help you craft the message. We will end her, and end the threat—without its linchpin, our adversary’s recent work will be easily unpicked. You are critical to the war ePort, agent.” Commandant takes a sealed letter from the desk and oPers it to her. She holds the letter too tight, since she’s unused to having hands. Red accepts. Bloodstains linger on the envelope, and the paper’s dimpled and creased with the strength of Commandant’s grip. “Suspend your ongoing operations. Transfer to the thread indicated here. Begin the work. Save the world.”

“Yes, sir.” Red salutes again.

Commandant returns the salute, then hefts the pliers again. The man on the chair is already screaming by the time Red leaves.

A comrade raises his hand, wants to talk to her. Red marches out to her duty. She makes it ten threads over, a continent away, several centuries up, before she collapses at the foot of an enormous rainbowed wall of water called Mosi-oa-Tunya and does not weep.

She watches with her eyes open.

Some time later, a bee zips past her ear and dances before her, amid the spray. She reads the letter it writes on air and feels a sickness around the Aame in her chest. They can make this work. They have to.

At the end, she holds out her hand. The bee settles on it and jabs its stinger into her palm.

Later, when Red is gone, a small, uncommonly adventurous spider seizes the corpse. Then, when the spider’s eaten its 1ll, Seeker eats the spider.


My Heart’s Own Blood,

I dance to you in a body built for sweetness, a body that tears itself apart in defense of what it loves. This letter will sting you when it’s done. Let it, and read a postscript in its death throes.

I dance—this will be a very boring letter—because this thing in me, this piping heat, this rising sun that hardly 1ts in the sky of me won’t stay put. To know you my equal in this, too—this beat of my blood’s drum, this feast that won’t diminish no matter how I ravage it—Red. Red, Red, Red, I want to write you poetry, and I am laughing, understand, as I teach this small body my joy, laughing at the joke of me and the relief, the relief of being supine on a stone slab with a knife above me and seeing your hand and eyes guiding it.

That surrender should be satiety. That it should have taken me this long to learn that.

Red, I love you. Red, I will send you letters from everywhen telling you so, letters of only one word, letters that will brush your cheek and grip your hair, letters that will bite you, letters that will mark you. I’ll write you by bullet ant and spider wasp; I’ll write you by shark’s tooth and scallop shell; I’ll write you by virus and the salt of a ninth wave Aooding your lungs; I’ll—

stop, here, I’ll stop. This is probably not how this is done. I want Aowers from Cephalus and diamonds from Neptune, and I want to scorch the thousand earths between us to see what blooms from the ash, so we can discover it hand in hand, content in context, intelligible only to each other. I want to meet you in every place I have loved.

I don’t know how it’s done between such as us, Red. But I can’t wait to 1nd out together.

Love, Blue

PS. I write to you in stings, Red, but this is me, the truth of me, as I do so: broken open by the act, in the palm of your hand, dying.


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