Chapter no 4

This is how You Lose the Time War

Blue approaches the temple in pilgrim’s guise: hair shorn to show the shine of circuitry curling around ears and up to scalp, eyes goggled, mouth a smear of chrome sheen, eyelids chrome hooded. She wears antique typewriter keys on her ngertips in veneration of the great god Hack, and her arms are braceleted in whorls of gold, silver, palladium, glinting brighter than bright against her dark skin.

Seen from overhead she is one of thousands, indistinguishable from the slow press of bodies shu ing towards the temple: a borehole in the centre of a vast, sun-baked pavilion. No one enters it: Such worshipful heat would wither their god on its silicon vine.

But inside is where she needs to be.

Blue drums her key-clapped ngers against one another with a dancer’s precision. A, C, G, T, backwards and forwards, bifurcated, reunited. Their percussive rhythm sequences an airborne strain of malware she’s been breeding for generations, an organism spreading invisible tendrils through this society’s neural network, harmless until executed.

She snaps her ngers. A spark ares between them.

The pilgrims-all ten thousand of them, all at once-collapse, perfectly silent, into one vast ornamented heap.

She listens to the hiss and pop of overheated circuits mis ring in ligreed brains and walks peacefully through the incapacitated pilgrims, their twitching limbs like surf lapping softly at her ankles.

It amuses Blue to no end that, in disabling their temple, in mounting this attack, she has, herself, performed an act of devotion to their god.

She has ten minutes to navigate the temple labyrinth: down the service ladder hand over hand, then one palm against the dry, dark wall to follow its broken lines to a centre. It’s cold underground, colder on her bare skin, colder still the deeper she goes, and she shivers but doesn’t slow.

At the centre is a boxy screen. It lights up as Blue approaches.

“Hello, I’m Mackint-“

“Hush, Siri. I’m here for the riddles.”

Eyes and a mouth-it can’t quite be called a face-animate the screen, regard her evenly. “Very well. How do you calculate the hypotenuse of a right triangle?”

Blue tilts her head, stands very still, except for the exing of her ngers at her side. She clears her throat.

“?’?’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.’ . . .”

Siri’s screen blinks with static before it asks, “What is the value of pi to sixty-two decimals?”

“?’The sedge is withered from the lake, / And no birds sing.’?”

A stful of snow skitters across Siri’s face. “If train A leaves Toronto at six p.m. travelling east at one hundred kilometres per hour, and train B leaves Ottawa at seven p.m. travelling west at one hundred twenty kilometres per hour, when will they cross?”

“?’Lo! the spell now works around thee, / And the clankless chain hath bound thee; / O’er thy heart and brain together / Hath the word been pass’d

-now wither!’?”

A ash of light: Siri powers down.

“Further,” Blue adds, stepping lightly towards the box, making to lift it into the heavy bag next to it, “Ontario sucks. As the prophets say.”

The screen ashes again; she steps back, startled. Words scroll across the screen, and as they do, her eyes widen, and the screen’s blue-white light catches on the chrome paint of her mouth as it spreads, slowly, into a ferocious grin.

She clacks her keys one nal time before shedding them from her ngers, the sheen from her mouth, the metal from her arms. As she steps sideways into the braid, the heap of ornament shrivels, rusts, akes, indistinguishable from the ne grit of the cavern oor. The seeker, following after, distinguishes every grain.

Dearest Blue-da-ba-dee,

A daring intrusion! Mad props. I never would have believed your party would risk working Strand 8827 this far downthread until I recognized your distinctive signature. I shudder to imagine an equal and opposite incursion-may causality forbid Commandant ever dispatch me to one of your viny-hivey elfworlds, profusely oral, all arcing elder trees, neural pollen, bees gathering memories from eyes and tongue, honey libraries dripping knowledge from the comb. I harbor no illusions I’d succeed. You would nd me in an instant, crush me faster-I’d walk a swath of rot through your verdancy, no matter how light I tried to step. I have a Cherenkov-green thumb.

(I know, I know: Cherenkov radiation’s . . . well . . . blue. Never let facts break a good joke.)

But you’re subtle. I barely heard the signs of your approach-I won’t tell you what they were, for reasons you’ll understand. Imagine me, if you want, crouched atop a stairwell, knees to chin, out of sight, counting the burglar’s footfalls as she climbs. You’re not half-bad at this. Did they grow you for this purpose? How does your side handle this sort of thing, anyway? Did they engender you knowing what you’d be; did they train you, run you through your paces at what I can only picture as some sort of horri c summer camp under the watchful eyes of concerned counselors who smile all the time?

Did your bosses send you here? Do you even have bosses? Or a queen? Might someone in your chain of command want to do you wrong?

I ask because we could have trapped you here. This strand’s a prominent tributary; Commandant could eld a swarm of agents without much causal risk. I imagine you reading this, thinking you would have escaped them all. Maybe.

But those agents are busy elsewhere, and it would be a waste of time

(ha!) to recall them and dispatch again. Rather than bother Commandant with something I could handle on my own, I interceded directly. Easier for us both.

Of course, I couldn’t let you steal these poor peoples’ god. We don’t need this place in speci c, but we need something like it. I’m sure you can picture the work required to rebuild such a paradise from scratch (or even recover its gleam from the wreckage). Think, for a second-if you succeeded, if you stole the physical object on whose slow quantum decomposition this strand’s random-number generators depend, if that triggered a cryptographic crisis, if that crisis led people to distrust their food printers, if hungry masses rioted, if riots fed this glitter to the res of war, we’d have to start again-cannibalizing other strands, likely from your braid. And then we’d be at one another’s throats even more.

Plus, this way I can repay you for that trick in the catacombs-with a note of my own! But I’m almost out of room. You like the Strand 6 nineteenth century. Well, Mrs. Leavitt’s Guide to Etiquette and Correspondence (London, Gooseneck Press, Strand 61) suggests I should end by recapitulating my letter’s main thrust, whatever that means, so, here goes: Ha-ha, Blueser. Your mission objective’s in another castle.

Hugs and kisses,


PS. The keyboard’s coated with slow-acting contact poison. You’ll be dead in an hour.

PPS. Just kidding! Or . . . am I?

PPPS. I’m just screwing with you. But postscripts sure are fun!

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