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Chapter no 9

This is how You Lose the Time War

Blue is in a high place at night.
Wind blows. The air is cold, but she is not. Sharp rocks don’t hurt her feet. Her job is to guard a growing thing, millennia in the making, a seed planted in the banked embers of the planet’s heart that’s riddled its slate surface with something like vines, sap, blood. Just beneath the surface, just waiting.

It will bloom soon.

Blue has fed it from time to time, as required. She has always known its purpose: a lion in waiting, a planet-size trap to spring, seeds planted long before prohibitive treaties about downthread interference. Blue is to watch it hatch, accomplish its purpose, then destroy its root system and leave no trace to be found or used by the other side. Garden has learned with the slow patience of green things how to prune enemy agents from the timeline, releasing ladybirds to their aphids, dragonAies to their mosquito larvae.

Blue is still thinking of larvae when she sees Red. Time stops.

Blue carries nothing with her between strands except knowledge, purpose, tactics, and Red’s letters. Memory is tipped and decanted into Garden, life to life to life, always deepening, thickening, growing new roots and efficiencies

—but Red’s letters she keeps in her own body, curled beneath her tongue like coins, printed in her 1ngers’ tips, between the lines of her palms. She presses them against her teeth before kissing her marks, reads them over when she shifts her grip on motorcycle handles, dusts soldiers’ chins with them in bar 1ghts and barracks games. She thinks without thinking, often, of what she will name Red in her next letter—hides her lists in plausibly deniable dreamscapes, on the undersides of milkweed leaves, in shed chrysalis and wingtip. Vermillion Lie. Scarlet Tanager. Parthian Thread. My Red, Red Rose.

She looks at Red—thirteen, alone, vulnerable, so impossibly fragile and small—and a letter rises in her throat like bile.

I manted to be seen.

She sees her and breaks like a wave.

She does not run the scenarios. She does not think, did Garden send me here to test me, does Garden know, does Garden want me to watch her die? She thinks nothing as the roots tense and twitch, as the planet blooms a mouth, a face, a body, a vastness rearing silent as owl Aight in the perfect dark, a hunger with eyes and teeth, bred for silent, waiting years to scent one speci1c set of nanoscopic implants, to hatch and devour one bright red element of its surroundings. It looks a little like a lion, truth be told—mane of pale blue cilia, maw worthy of cinematic roars, though it will never make a sound—but for the size, the number of legs, the wings.

It steps out onto the cold, sharp ground. It sniPs the air, inclines its head in Red’s direction.

Blue tears out its throat.

Her teeth are very sharp. She has four rows of them. Her double-banked eyes see beautifully in the dark. Her six legs end in tearing points, rip the voiceless creature into hot, pulsing meat. It gets its own in—good for the story she’ll have to tell, she’ll later think, when she can recover thought, when she can act again from something besides pure, obliterating need—and she bleeds in her wolf shape but makes no sound, nothing to distract Red from the absence of epiphany, the hollowing that left a space for another, the moment when she became Blue’s.

Blue eats the carcass, all but its teeth and venom sack. That she tears carefully open on the rocks, tips a few drops into the hole it grew out of. The roots will lap it up, wither, and die; her story will be that the creature had soured, attacked her instead of its quarry. Enemy action, no doubt, having discovered the root system, made changes to it somewhere upthread.

An understandable but embarrassing mistake. Left Blue too injured to attempt her own correction, and at any rate there were the treaties—direct confrontation between agents so precariously downthread would be catastrophic for ambient Chaos levels.

The words fall into place like rain. Blue licks her bloodied snout, her paws, her gouged shoulder. She needs to do one more thing.

Slowly, keeping her wound out of sight, she walks where Red can see her. Keeping her distance, of course, and the words padded past in some dimness

of mind. She does not look wounded; she is certain.

She looks at Red and sees tears on her face.

She stiAes the urge to run—towards, or away. She carries her hunger like a compass rose (stavs vose—they ave a vose, vight?), walks due south away from the north to which it points. Once she is out of sight, she tucks into a shallow cave and collapses, trembling, shifts her shape to human, 1nds her legs, her skin, the wound yawning larger and uglier than before, likely infected, needing care. She leans her back against the scalloped stone wall, closes her eyes, spreads her palms on the ground for extra support.

She puts one hand on a letter.

A letter to do Mrs. Leavitt proud: beautiful blue paper Aecked with lavender buds and thistle petals, in a blue envelope with a red dollop of wax shutting it. There is no seal, no stamp—only red, red as the blood dripping from her shoulder.

She stares at it. Then she laughs, hollow and bare, and she sobs, and she clutches the letter against her heart and does not open it for a long time.

But she does. She reads it. Fever builds, sweat beads on her brow, but she reads it and reads it again and again and again.

Much later, the seeker comes. She 1nds the gutted creature’s teeth. She plucks the two largest canines, 1xes them into her mouth, and moves towards the cave.

There is nothing for her to 1nd there except blood.

 

Dear Blue,

I—

I don’t know what to say. Even perspicacious, almost prescient Mrs. Leavitt lacks a model. Birthdays, yes (it’s mine, by the way, to the extent I have one); funerals, 1ne; on the occasion of a marriage, naturally. But she somehow neglects to frame a form for when your enemy saves—

Shit. I’m sorry. I can’t keep up the joke. And it’s wrong to call you enemy.

Thank you.

For saving me, obviously and for starters. I felt you climb down the braid. I am more sensitive to your footsteps, I think, than anyone alive. (And everyone is alive, somewhere in time. Even these digressions feel weak. I like them usually, my jokes. They feel like tacking in, not out, to the matter at hand. Less so now.) I followed you. I apologize for that, for trespassing on your privacy as you made yourself what you had to be to win.

I could not have beaten the beast alone. You’re more ferocious than I am.

Do you look around in turn as you read these lines, seeking me? I’m gone, dear Blue, upthread, and you should be as well. We’re neither of us safe here, and the longer you remain the less safe we become. You know the drill: Tremors spread from a traveler’s foot, and though no other spider has grown so attuned to your tread as I have, the others aren’t deaf. I’ll have to see your eyes some other time. I leave you a letter, sealed in wax, a trace of perfume.

Scent, for me, is a medium. I rarely use it for ornamental purpose. I hope I’ve selected a fragrance to your taste. I asked the busboy in London Next for a sample of your tea a few letters back, brought it to a 9avfumevie in Phnom Penh (Strand 7922 C33 if you happen to like the smell; I’ll enclose the address below), worked back and forth for a few years on the proper mix.

Anyway. Keep this. It’s yours. It won’t burn when you read the signature, it won’t decay faster than any letter one woman in your beloved Strand 6 C19 would write to another. The paper’s from Wuhan, Song dynasty, handmade: Leave it in a damp place and it will rot; mix it in water and you’ll have a pulp. Destroy it on your own, in your own way, if you want. I won’t mind. We all have our observers. And this letter is a knife at my neck, if cutting’s what you want.

It’s so hard to move, here, and reply to your last letter. I feel—I can’t say precisely what. I’m shaken. You know the edges of old maps that promise monsters and mermaids? Here there be dragons?

I do not know what roads lead forward. But your letter hungers for reply.

I’ve read your last missive and reread it—in memory, as you warned me I would so long ago, preparing myself for a fall. I see you as a wave, as a bird, as a wolf. (My wolf, with the six legs and double-banked eyes.) I try not to think of you the same way twice. Thinking builds patterns in the brain, and those patterns can be read by one sufficiently determined, and Commandant, sometimes, is sufficiently determined

—I think you’d like her. So I change your shape in my thoughts. It’s amazing how much blue there is in the world, if you look. You’re diPerent colors of Aame: Bismuth burns blue, and cerium, germanium, and arsenic. See? I pour you into things.

I suspect you see me plain by now—imagine me shifting, uncomfortable, exposed. My way was always the straightforward push, in one direction, without hesitation or restraint. I only worried you might view these long letters as the sign of a simple or a desperate mind. I worried—maybe you’ll laugh—that you responded on suPerance.

So: Let me be clear.

I like writing you. I like reading you. When I 1nish your letters, I spend frantic hours in secret composing my replies, pondering ways to send them. I can trigger any combination of chemical ups and downs with a carefully worded phrase; a factory within me will smelt any drug I seek. But there’s a rush in reading and sending against which no drug compares.

Speaking of exposed! If you have some grand plan, if the death your masters envisioned for my younger self was too quick and you’d rather see me disassembled for my parts, all you need do now is drop this letter where some other agent of my faction might 1nd it. I could live with that. (Well, not for long, and painfully, but you take my meaning.)

So in this letter I am yours. Not Garden’s, not your mission’s, but yours, alone.

I am yours in other ways as well: yours as I watch the world for your signs, apophenic as a haruspex; yours as I debate methods, motives, chances of delivery; yours as I review your words by their sequence, their sound, smell, taste, taking care no one memory of them becomes too worn. Yours. Still, I suspect you will appreciate the token.

I’ll try for a library next time. I hope you understand my need for a change of plans.

Yours, Red

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