Chapter no 22

This is how You Lose the Time War

She finds herself, at 1rst, in orbit.
Space here is sick. Thick. Slick. She drowns in cloying honey-heavy light. Her passage through vacuum feels like sliding over meat. The cold touches her new skin but does not burn; her lungs lack air, but she does not need to breathe. Far away and too, too near shines a sun that is an eye with a great hourglass pupil like a goat’s, sweeping space for weaknesses to improve, exploit. All the stars are eyes here, always seeking. Red’s prophets rail against an indiPerent universe; here, in Garden’s domain, all the vast worlds care.

The planet she circles has outlived its usefulness, she knows—the new organs tell her. Thick Auid space opens. Green taproots descend from its gaps, wrap the globe, and, with a gentle pruner’s strength, crumble it to dirt, drawing life from the fragments until only ash remains. The nutrients are needed elsewhere.

The eye that is a sun sweeps past her, and Red burns with the fury of its glance.

She has made a terrible mistake. She is a fool, and she will die far from home. How could she think she knew this place from letters, from the memories of a friend? How could she have been so certain; how could she believe she’d become enough of Blue to survive here? Not knowing this, did she really know Blue at all?

These are the thoughts that seek to betray her: cracks for roots to exploit. She thinks of Blue and does not break.

The eye moves on, and so does Red, without betraying her relief.

She walks Garden’s many worlds. Space itself is hostile to her here. Moss breathes fumes of sleep; spores drift, seeking traitors’ lungs where they can nest. Constellations hang phosphorescent in the sky, and vines tangle between galaxies, great trunk lines bridging stellar gulfs. Life burgeons and blooms even in fusion 1res at the heart of stars. She is lost.

She seeks Blue. She climbs through a mangrove growing from a mercury sea, and spiders the size of hands fall on her and tickle the back of her arms,

her neck, feather light. They question her in silk, and she answers each challenge with memories of Blue. Blue braiding grasses. Blue taking tea. Blue, hair shorn, come to steal from God. Blue with club raised, Blue with razor, Blue birthing futures.

The spiders mark her with their fangs, which is a dangerous way to give directions. But though the knowledge burns through her veins, the woman Red’s become does not die.

She climbs upthread. She works slowly, steps light.

We’ve gvomn, I thinb you bnom, Blue wrote. We buvvom into the bvaidedness of time. We ave the hedge, entively, vosebuds mith thovns fov 9etals.

Red 1nds the place. The spiders’ wisdom leads her to a green hollow of vines and moths, where Aowers whiter than white bloom, at their hearts only dots of red. She descends into fairyland.

It seems like one of Blue’s beloved paintings, but Red can sense the dangers here. The roses waft scents of sleep: Come vest among us so ouv thovns can climb thvough youv eavs to the softness mithin. A blanket of massive gray-wing moths falls from the willow boughs to Autter around her, settle on her, taste her lips with their proboscides. Wings sharper than razors slide rough against her tendons. Grass grows to cushion her steps, but she feels its coiled strength. Is she Blue enough? If this place suspected what she was, she would die at once: carved by mothwing, choked by grass, food for the roses.

But she belongs here. This place belongs to the newness, the Blueness, inside her. So long as she does not fear. So long as she does not waver and gives the grove no reason to suspect.

A mothwing presses, just, between her eyelashes, and she does not scream or vomit or cut her eyeball open.

This is Blue’s place. She will not give it the satisfaction of killing her. Pollen thickens the air with wisdom. To walk is to swim, and so she swims,

upthread along the taproot that is this grove, into a past Garden has warded round with walls and thorns to guard the fertile dirt where her most perfect agents grow.

Seeds 9lanted, voots combing thvough time.

Red swims to the grove’s vegetal heart, surrounded by wet, green apparatus through which Garden rears and feeds its tools, its weapons. Yet

look another way, with human eyes, and she stands on a hillside near a farm in autumn.

There, the princess lies.

The princess is a creature of thorn and edge and Aame. She is a grand weapon un1nished, heartrending and beautiful. Ranks of teeth shine in her mouth.

Look another way, and she is a girl asleep on a hill in light.

When I mas uevy small, Blue wrote, I got sicb.

When she’s grown, she will be 1t for a war. But she is not Blue yet.

Red nears. The princess’s eyes open, golden, gleaming—and dark, deep, human, both at once, a trap inside a trap. Gorgeous girlmonster, she blinks, stretches between dream and waking.

Red bends to her bed and kisses her.

Her teeth cut Red’s lip. Her tongue darts out to claim Red’s fallen blood. Red carved the poison into her memory down those long days in the lab,

as she warped berries into paragraphs: a hungry poison, to turn Blue’s defenses against her, to make Garden cut her oP, to eat her from within.

The blood she gives Blue to drink holds a foretaste of that poison—and Red’s antivenom, her resistance. A small virus that, if this works, will taint juvenile Blue the most delicate shade of Red.

I mas com9vomised by enemy action.

Tabe this of me, Red thinks. Cavvy it in youvself, a voot fed by mhat mould bill it. Cavvy hungev all youv days. let it guavd you, guide you, saue you.

So that mhen the movld and Gavden and I all thinb you’ve dead, some 9avt of you mill mabe. liue. Aemembev.

If this movbs.

The gaze of the girl who would be Blue 1xes on her, soft with dreams, trusting. She tastes what she is oPered, knows the pain in it, and swallows.

Hunger rushes crimson through the girl’s veins and out her roots into the glen; it pulses and snaps in Aower petals; it sears the wings of moths. The grove burns. Red Aees. Burning moths dart for her, carve furrows in her legs and arms and gut, but they cauterize the wounds they carve as they strike. One clips oP Red’s little 1nger. Grass catches her leg, ungloves skin from a section of her right calf, but the grass, too, shrivels with hunger, and Red

lurches out, bleeding, and gropes upthread toward the home she has betrayed, toward safety that is no longer safe.

But she does not know where else to go.

The slick heavy weight of space is still no longer. Anger tenses the skin of worlds. Eyes that are stars seek a traitor.

Garden chases her.


• • •

Red is swift, clever, mighty, and in pain. Free of the grove, subtlety no longer needed, she deploys her armor, her weapons, and makes it a running 1ght. Suffice to say, this does not go well. The stars that are eyes pin her between possibilities. She wrestles giant taproots in the void. Tearing herself free, she loses armor, bones, 1ngers, teeth. She calls upon her last secret engines of war, burns the taproots, blinds the eyes—stars collapse and explode at once, and Red falls through a gap in worlds as into a mouth.

She tumbles between threads, in silence and null time, to crash at last, broken, bleeding, barely conscious, in a desert beside two vast and trunkless legs of stone.

She looks up, stares, and, broken-throated, laughs.

And then Commandant’s legions fall upon her like the night.

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