Chapter no 6

This is how You Lose the Time War

Blue sees her chosen name reAected everywhere around her: moon-slicked Aoes, ocean thick with drift ice, liquid churned to glass. She munches a piece of dry biscuit on deck while the ship’s hands sleep, dusts the crumbs oP her mitts, and watches them fall into the white-Aecked pitch of the waters. The schooner’s name is The Queen of revvyland, carrying a full complement of hunters eager to stack scalps in the hold, hungry for what fur and Aesh and fat will buy them in the oP-season. Blue’s interest is partly in oil, but chieAy in the deployment of new steam technologies: There is a staggering of outcomes to achieve, a point oP which to tip the industry, a rudder with which to steer these ships between the Scylla of one doom and

the Charybdis of another, onto a course that leads to Garden.

Seven strands tangle on the collapse or survival of this 1shery— insigni1cant to some eyes, everything to others. Some days Blue wonders why anyone ever bothered making numbers so small; other days she supposes even in1nity needs to start somewhere.

Those days rarely happen while on a mission.

Who can speak of what Blue thinks on a mission, when missions are often whole lives, when the story spun for her to wield a hunter’s hook is years in the making? So many roles, dresses, parties, trousers, intimacies rolled into grasping a berth and bundling into shapeless clothes to keep Newfoundland’s winter at bay.

The horizon blinks, and morning yawns above it. Hunters spill over the schooner’s side, Blue among them: They sweep across the ice, tools in hand, laughing, singing, striking skulls and splitting skins.

Blue has hauled three skins on board when a big, brash beater catches her eye: It raises its head in threat for all of half a second before bolting for the water. Blue is faster. The beater’s skull breaks like an egg beneath her club. She drops into a crouch beside it to inspect the pelt.

The sight hits her like a hakapik. There, in the ice-rimed fur, mottled and marked as hand-pulped paper, spots and speckles resolve into a word she can

read: “Blue.”

Her hand does not shake as she slices into the skin. Her breath comes even. She’s kept her gloves clean, for the most part, but now she stains them red as a name.

Buried in the depths of glistening viscera is a dry piece of cod, undigested, scratched and grooved with language. She hardly realises that she’s settled her body onto the ice, cross-legged, comfortable, as if tea, not seal guts, steamed dark and fragrant beside her.

She’ll keep the pelt. The cod she’ll crush to powder, sprinkle over rancidly buttered biscuit and eat for dinner; the body she’ll dispose of in the usual way.

When the seeker comes hard and fast on her trail, all that’s left is a smear of dark red on blue snow. On hands and knees, she licks and sucks and chews until all the colour’s gone.


My Dear Mood Indigo,

I apologize for, well, everything. It’s been a long time from my perspective, and, I’m afraid, yours, since your letter—I had another decade or so with Genghis (who says hi, by the way—he told me the most interesting stories about you, or, I assume it was you), after-action reports following, and after those I had the usual sort of routine rebraiding dance. An assessment wrapped the whole thing up. I passed

—as ever. The usual nonsense. I imagine you have something of the same: The Agency squats far downthread, issues agents up; then Commandant doubts the agents who return. Yes, we diverge in our travels; yes, we acquire shades; we round; we behave asocially. Adaption is the price of victory. You might think they would realize that.

I spent the better part of a year recovering from your so-called sense of humor. Hordes and boards!

I consulted the literature on scents and wax seals, as you suggested. It’s all a bit counterintuitive, this business of communication through base matter. Closing a letter—a physical object without even a ghost in the cloud, all that data on one frail piece of paper—with an even more malleable substance, bearing, of all things, an ideographic signature! Informing any handler of the message’s sender, her role, perhaps even her purpose! Madness—from an operational-security perspective. But, as the prophets say, there ain’t no mountain high enough—so I’ve essayed the work here. I hope you enjoy your whacked seal. I didn’t supply any extra scent, but the medium has a savor all its own.

There’s a kind of time travel in letters, isn’t there? I imagine you laughing at my small joke; I imagine you groaning; I imagine you throwing my words away. Do I have you still? Do I address empty air and the Aies that will eat this carcass? You could leave me for 1ve years, you could return never—and I have to write the rest of this not knowing.

I prefer read-receipts, all things considered—the instant handshake of slow telepathy through our wires. But this is a fascinating technology, in its limits.

You ask if we eat.

It’s a hard question to answer. There is no mono-we; there are many usses. The usses change and interleave. Have you ever stared into the workings of a watch? I’m talking about a really, really good watch—if you want to see what I mean, climb downthread to thirty-third-century-CE Ghana. Limited Unlimited in Accra does wonderful pieces with translucent nanoscale gears, no larger than grains of sand, teeth invisibly small, actions and counteractions and complications: They break light like a kaleidoscope. And they keep good time. There’s one of you, but so many of us—pieces layered atop pieces, each with its own traits, desires, purposes. One person may wear diPerent faces in diPerent rooms. Minds swap bodies for sport. Everyone is anything they want. The Agency imposes a modicum of order. So, do we eat?

I do.

I don’t need to. We grow in pods, our basic knowledge Aashed in cohort by cohort, nutrient balance maintained by the gel bath, and there most of us stay, our minds Aitting disembodied through the void from star to star. We live through remotes, explore through drones— the physical world but one of many, and uninteresting by comparison to most. Some do decant and wander, but they can sustain themselves for months on a charge, and there’s always a pod to go back to when you want it.

All of this refers mostly to civilians, of course. Agents need more independent modes of operation. We are separate from the mass, and we move in our own bodies. It’s easier that way.

Eating’s gross, isn’t it? In the abstract, I mean. When you’re used to hyperspace recharging stations, to sunlight and cosmic rays, when most of the beauty you’ve known lies in a great machine’s heart, it’s hard to see the appeal of using bones that poke from spit-coated gums to mash things that grew in dirt into a paste that will 1t down the wet tube connecting your mouth to the sack of acid under your heart. Takes the new recruits a long time to get used to, once they’re decanted.

But I enjoy eating these days. More of us do than care to admit it publicly. I revel in it, as one only revels in pursuits one does not need. The runner enjoys running when she need not Aee a lion. Sex improves when decoupled—sorry—from animalist procreative desperation (or even from the desperation of not having had sex in a while, as I’ve had cause to note after my recent two decades’ sojourn and attendant dry spell).

I bite blueberry pancakes drizzled with maple syrup, extra butter— that expanding AuP, the berry’s pop against my teeth, butter’s bloom in my mouth. I explore sweetnesses and textures. I’m never hungry, so I don’t race to the next bite. I eat glass, and as it cuts my gums, I savor minerals, metals, impurities; I see the beach from which some poor bastard skimmed the sand. Small rocks taste of the river, of rubbed 1sh scale, of glaciers long gone. They crunch, crisp, celery-like. I share the sensation with fellow a1cionados; they share theirs with me, though there’s lag, and sensor granularity remains an issue.

So, a roundabout way of saying: I love to eat.

Probably too much. I seldom can in public, back at the Agency. Commandant starts asking questions if you do. Jaunts upthread, to places where they eat all the time, feel decadent.

How about you? I don’t mean, necessarily, how do you eat, though if you want to 1ll me in, be my guest. (Your descriptions of honey and bread—thank you for that.) I’ve described, a bit, our overlapping models—communities public and private, shared interests, shared senses. What’s it like to be a part of yours? Do you have friends, Blue? And how?

You asked me to tell truths. I have. What do I want? Understanding. Exchange. Victory. A game—hiding and discovery. You’re a swift opponent, Blue. You play long odds. You run the table. If we’re to be at war, we might as well entertain one another. Why else did you taunt me at the start?

Yours, Red

PS. Cochineal! I get it now.

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