Chapter no 21

This is how You Lose the Time War

Red’s no fool: She starts the whole desperate play with autosurgery. She pierces herself with a thin blade bought in thirteenth-century Toledo, breaks the obvious tracking systems. Commandant may yet trace her as she climbs and descends history’s braid, but that takes time, and Red moves fast.
The 1rst letter’s easy.

They didn’t know they were being watched yet, of course. Only rough precautions taken. She emerges from the shadow of a broken gunship and stares into the sky of a world they wrecked and left. The letter is ash; she slits her 1nger, works blood into the ash to form dough as the world breaks. She applies jeweled lights and odd sounds. She wrinkles time.

Thunder nears. The world cracks through the middle.

The ash becomes a piece of paper, with sapphire writing in a viny hand at the top.

She reads it. She takes the beginning into herself. This is hom me’ll min.

Red 1nds water in an MRI machine in an abandoned hospital and drinks. In a temple abyss, Red gnaws fallen bones. In a grand computer’s heart, she peers through optic circuits. In a frozen waste, she slides a letter’s splinters into her skin. She takes them into herself, adapts. Finds all the missing shades of Blue.

As the letters’ taunts change tone, she must be more inventive. A spider eating a dragonAy. A shadow drinking tears and coiled enzymes within.

She watches herself weep in a dinosaur swamp, and though she knows this is a trap laid by the younger Red for her shadow follower, the tears still gouge and burn. She cannot stop herself from reaching out, from trying with a touch to say, I’m heve. Sometimes you have to hold a person, though they’ll mistake embrace for strangulation. She wrestles herself in the shadows and feels the pain when she breaks her own hip.

She travels the labyrinth of the past and rereads the letters. Recreates both herself and Blue, so young-seeming now, in her heart.

She clutches the text like a spar against a Aood—Red in tooth and claw, the Mongol hordes, curses of Atlantis, a hunger so sharp and bright it might split you open, break a new thing out. Rose-hip tea. Promises of books. That I might haue taught you this. Tending each to each.

The breadcrumbs she 1nds as she seeks them! Blodeuwedd. You’d need to 9vactically meav theiv sbin. How long had she planned this? Hom long did you bnom, my mood indigo?

Or did she know at all? The links are small, deniable. The breadcrumbs could be only crumbs. Red devours them anyway. She has decided; there’s no room left for doubt.

Red may be mad, but to die for madness is to die for something.

Commandant’s agents smell her, chase her. They trap her in a sinking pirate ship in Coxinga’s Aeet, and she breaks them quickly, surgically, and peels their camouAage shields away and wears them.

A letter is more than text. She reads Blue into her: tears, breath, skin— most of these traces were scrubbed away, but a few remain. She builds a model of Blue’s mind from the words she left; she molds her body to the letters’ measure. Almost.

And at last, Red stands on the cliP at the end of the world and holds out her hand, and her heart breaks to see herself weeping in the world before. She wishes she could take herself into her arms, crush her in a 1erce embrace.

The broken Red presses Blue’s last letter into her hand, jumps oP the cliP, and does not die.

The letter remains—the seal, the wax with a drop of blood inside.

On a bare island far upthread, she places the seal upon her tongue, chews, swallows, and collapses.

She shades herself with Blue, from blood, tears, skin, ink, words. She thrashes with the pain of growth inside her: new organs bloom from autosynthesized stem cells to shoulder old bits of her away. Green vines twine her heart and seize it, and she vomits and sweats until the vines’ rhythm matches hers. A second skin grows within her skin, popping, blistering. She claws herself oP upon the rocks like a snake and lies transformed. And more: A diPerent mind plays around the edges of her own.

She feels herself alien. She has spent thousands of years killing bodies like the one she wears. Sea spray breaks the barren sunrise to rainbows.

Her transformation has not gone unnoticed.

Threads of time sing with the light, swift footfalls of Red’s sister-soldiers: The Agency has smelled her treason, their hero turned. She is meat, now, for their teeth.

If they’re already that angry, wait until they get a load of her next trick. She dives from this thread, plummets down the space between the braids.

Time feels diPerent now—she remains herself, but also an echo of her love, a by-blow, a not-quite. The hounds bay behind, Red’s sisters, her rivals 1ercest and fast, but one by one they realize where she’s bound and break oP pursuit. The last, too strong and dumb for her own good, remains, nearer, nearer, her hand almost clutching Red’s ankle. But the green wall looms ahead, the great border where futures turn from Ours to Theirs.

Red strikes that wall, and it reads the Blue in her, bubbles, at 1rst resists, and she thinks, That’s it, chance failed, me’ve done. But then it gapes, and she tumbles through, and it closes fast behind. Her pursuer shatters.

Red falls, Aies, down threads she’s never dared touch, into Garden. She enters as a letter, sealed in Blue

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