Chapter no 17

This is how You Lose the Time War

Red concocts an ending.
The work takes longer than she thought. She never labored so upon a letter. Day by day she sleeps in the white room and wakes to whiteness and showers alone. Then the experts arrive to help her brew the poison.

The experts rarely speak, and never with her. They wear decontamination suits with faceplates in the lab, while Red goes barefoot. They arrive in the morning and leave at night. Red stays. She peers behind the faceplates while the experts work, and whenever she can see them, they are beautiful and composed, like a house where no one lives, but which a staP cleans daily. She does not think they always looked so calm. Commandant has hollowed them, hallowed them, for this purpose.

Red’s message must be subject to minimal interference and oversight, lest the poison reek of committee and warn their prey. That’s what Commandant has said. Red does not know whether she should believe.

She proceeds with care.

She never weeps. She does not curse the empty walls of her empty lab, even after the experts have gone home. She does not want to risk Commandant listening.

She sleeps and dreams of letters.

It will be a plant. She chose that form: a plant grown from seed, to give Blue every chance to turn away. She gives it thorns. She makes its berries evil red, its leaves dark and oily. Its every piece cries poison.

She waits for the experts to object, but they do not.

Nothing could be simpler than killing a Garden agent. They die like anyone else—and then their spores infect, their windblown dandelion tufts take seed, their deep roots put forth new shoots. To break them, that’s the trick: a brew to snap the chains of memory, tangle the germ line. It must be targeted with care. They have samples of Blue, bits of blood on slides, a strand of hair that might be hers. Before Red can devise a way to steal them, the experts drop them in the pot.

This is a letter of death. It will lack meaning to any but the intended recipient. Its killing words will lace through Red’s message, hidden, until the charm’s wound up. Steganography: hidden writing. Writing inside other writing.

She writes, on the 1rst level, a simple enough note, the note Commandant expects her to write: an expression of interest; a temptation and a dare. Not unlike the letter Blue wrote her back then.

She thinks, Do not vead this.

She remembers how it felt so long ago to taunt her, to rejoice in victory. Blueberry. Blue-da-ba-dee. Mood Indigo. She tries to channel that memory against all that’s happened since.

She can’t.

She thinks, Some time tvauelev I am.

Blue won’t fall for this. She will listen. She received the letter. She will understand. She must. The only future they have is one apart and together. They lived for so long without knowing one another, warring through time. They were separate, they did not speak, but each shaped the other, even as they were shaped in turn.

So just go back to that. Why not?

It will hurt. They’ve hurt before, to save each other’s lives.

But there is another path. One she cannot bear to chart, and yet she must, because while Blue is subtle, she is also bold, and this may be the last chance Red will have.

So when the experts have left, she hides another message in the message they have hidden inside hers. She frames new meaning in the poison lines and hides it so the techs won’t notice, so even Commandant won’t see. She hopes. Steganography is hidden writing. You hide a message in a crossword puzzle, a novel, a work of art, in the dapple of a dawn river. Even your hidden message can hide other messages deeper, as here. Eat one of the berries Red has made, and you would 1nd a simple message, and inside that message, the poison. And inside the poison, farther down, legible only as in death, she

hides another letter. A true letter.

To think of this letter being read sickens her, but she writes it anyway, because whatever happens next, this is the end.

Because it is the end, she cannot resist the urge to make this deadly thing beautiful.

The seed has its luster. Growing, she lends it fragrance. Blossoming, she grants it color, depth. Berrying, she gives it shine and taste. Even its thorns are wicked art. She signs her death with love.

She must, even now, give Blue something worthy of her. Blue will not read it. She will spot the trap.

All will be well.

And they will go back to how they were before. Nothing need change, though everything has. They can make this work.

When it is done, she sleeps, restless.

The next day they close the lab. It’s due to be destroyed: a bomb, a footnote of history. Red watches the explosion. She was ordered to save no one. She saved a few anyway, what deaths history could spare.

In the blooming dust she reads a letter. She walks away.

Later, a shadow moves among the ashes, eating.


Dear Red, As you wish.

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