Chapter no 23

This is how You Lose the Time War

A cell is all Red’s world.
They take her from it sometimes to ask her questions. Commandant has so many, all variations on the basic: why, and when, and how, and what. They think they know mho.

The 1rst time Commandant asked those questions, Red grinned and told her to ask nicely. Then they hurt her.

The second time Commandant asked questions, Red told her, once more, to ask nicely. They hurt her again.

Sometimes they oPer pain. Sometimes they oPer steak and freedom, a word which means something to them presumably.

But when she’s not in use, the world’s this cell, this box: gray walls meeting overhead; a Aat, gray Aoor; rounded corners. A bed. A toilet. When she wakes, she 1nds food on a tray. When they come for her, a door opens at a random point on the curved wall. Her skin is raw. There are hollows beneath it where her weapons used to be.

She suspects they built this prison especially for her. They drag her past other cells, all empty. Perhaps they want her to think she’s alone.

The guard comes for her one morning. She has decided to believe whenever she sleeps is night, whenever she wakes is morning. Absent sun, who’s to care? They drag her down another empty hall. Commandant waits. No pliers this time. Commandant looks as tired as Red feels. She’s learned exhaustion in their many sessions together, as Red has learned fear.

“Tell us,” she says. “This is the last time I ask. Tomorrow, we’ll take you apart and sift the pieces for what we want to know.”

Red raises an eyebrow.

“Please,” Commandant says, dry as steel. Red says nothing.

She does not think about pomegranates. She does not dare hope. All they ever had was a chance. Rnd euen if it movbed, euen if she mobe, mho’s to say she’d come fov you?

You betvayed hev.

Red does not think.

The guard drags her back down the long empty hall and pauses at the open door.

Red, ready to be tossed once more into her small gray world, looks back. The guard watches her with still and weighing eyes and a mouth twisted to a cruel, clever line.

“Why are you doing this?” GruP, low. They aren’t supposed to talk to prisoners.

Red’s always been one for small talk. And—tomorrow’s the end. “Some things matter more than winning.”

The guard considers. Red knows the type: idealistic but unskilled, hoping to rise through the ranks on dependability. Yet her defection loosened this one’s lips.

Blue would have been impressed.

“You broke into Garden, and out again, and you won’t tell us how. So you’re not on our side. Why not join them when you had the chance? Sell us out?” So earnest. Red was that way once.

“Garden doesn’t deserve us. Neither does the Agency.” By us she means herself and Blue, wherever she may be, if in fact she is. She means all of them, all the ghosts on all the threads dying in this sick old war. Even this guard. Red gives her this truth, at the last. Maybe it will save her life.

The guard throws her into the cell anyway.

Red hits the Aoor and skids. She lies still and does not look up. Something rustles behind her. The cell door shuts. All over soon. She did what she could. The guard walks away, boot thud echoing heavy, measured, slow.

When Red looks up, a small rectangle of white paper lies upon the Aoor. She scrambles toward the envelope, claws it to her.

Her name. Handwriting she knows.

She remembers the guard’s grip on her arm. Remembers that voice. Was it familiar?

She rips the envelope open with her thumb and reads, and by the second line, her cheeks hurt from the 1erceness of her smile.


My dear Hyper Extremely Red Object—

I didn’t know what you would do.

I want to explain myself—this self you’ve saved, this self you’ve infected, this self that was Möbius twisted with yours from its earliest beginning.

I planted your letter. I watched it grow. I tended it and thought of feeding it my blood, rearing a mouth in it through which to speak to you. You said not to read it. The thought of your naïveté charmed me in the same breath as the thought of betrayal burned me. It had to be one or the other: How could you think that your failure to kill me would result in anything less than your own death? How could you not see this for the test it was? How, unless you trusted in your conquest sufficiently to know I would take myself oP the board for you, prompted by a clumsy show of your pain?

Either way, there was only one choice. To protect you—whatever your intentions—I had to submit to you.

It wasn’t hard. Truth be told, Red—not reading your letter was harder.

When you said you wouldn’t write again, when you said—that is the only letter of yours I’ve wanted to obliterate from myself. If I’m honest, that’s part of why I took the bait. To be unmade, that last written over—to be destroyed by you was easier, truly, than living with what you proposed.

But I’m greedy, Red. I wanted the last word as well as the 1rst.

I hope you did not take my reply too hard. I knew you might not be the 1rst to read it. I want you to know—I died thinking that if anyone could keep me alive, it would be you. It was, I confess to you here, a smug thought: that I died by my own hand, and was raised by yours.

You remember I promised you in1ltration from my very 1rst letter

—dared you to be infected by me. I couldn’t know, then—I couldn’t, and nor could you—how thoroughly you were already inside me,

shielding me from the future. You’ve always been the hunger at the heart of me, Red—my teeth, my claws, my poisoned apple. Under the spreading chestnut tree, I made you and you made me.

There’s still a war out there, of course. But this is a strategy untested. What would Genghis say if we built a bridge together, Red? Suppose we reached across the burn of threads and tangles, cut through the braid’s knots—suppose that we defected, not to each other’s sides, but to each other? We’re the best there is at what we do. Shall we do something we’ve never done? Shall we prick and twist and play the braid until it yields us a place downthread, bend the fork of our Shifts into a double helix around our base pair?

Shall we build a bridge between our Shifts and hold it—a space in which to be neighbours, to keep dogs, share tea?

It’ll be a long, slow game. They’ll hunt us 1ercer than they ever hunted each other—but somehow I don’t think you’ll mind.

I’ve bought you 1ve minutes to bust out. Instructions on overleaf, though I doubt you’ll need them.

I don’t give a shit who wins this war, Garden or the Agency— towards whose Shift the arc of the universe bends.

But maybe this is how we win, Red. You and me.

This is how we win.

You'll Also Like