Chapter no 7

This is how You Lose the Time War

Serves it right. Red hates the place. For one thing, there are so many Atlantises, always sinking, in so many strands: an island oP Greece, a mid-Atlantic continent, an advanced pre-Minoan civilization on Crete, a spaceship Aoating north of Egypt, on and on. Most strands lack Atlantis altogether, know the place only through dreams and mad poets’ madder whispers.

Because there are so many, Red cannot 1x just one, or fail to. Sometimes it seems strands bud Atlantises to thwart her. They conspire. History makes common cause with the enemy. Thirty, forty times throughout her career she has walked away from some sinking, burning island, thinking, at least that’s over. Thirty, forty times, the call has come: Go back.

At the foot of the volcano, the dark-skinned Atlanteans seek their ships. A mother carries her screaming son in one arm, clutches her daughter by the hand. Father follows. He bears their household gods. Tears streak the soot on his face. A priestess and a priest remain with their temple. They will be burned. They have lived their lives as sacri1ces to—who again? Red has lost track. She feels bad about that.

They lived their lives as sacri1ces.

Gods and children 1rst, they 1ll the boats. As the earth shakes and the sky burns, even the bravest and most single-minded leave their work. Notes and sums and new engines remain behind. They take people and art. The math will burn, the engines melt, the arches fall to dust.

This is not even one of the weirder Atlantises. No crystals here, no Aying cars, no perfect governments, no psychic powers. (Those last two things don’t exist, anyway.) And yet: That man built a steam-and-pinwheel engine six centuries earlier than the mean. This woman, through reason and ecstatic meditation, discerned the usefulness of zero to her mathematics. This shepherd built freestanding arches into the walls of his house. Small touches, ideas so fundamental they seem useless. Nobody here knows their worth, yet.

But if they do not perish on this island, someone might realize their use a few centuries earlier and change everything.

So Red tries to give them time.

Her implants glow bright crimson to vent heat. They sear her Aesh. She sweats buckets. Growls. Glowers. She pushes herself, here. Island saving’s not a one-woman job, so she works harder than one woman can.

She rolls enormous boulders to break the coming lava Aows. She plows new fake riverbeds with her hands. With the tools at her disposal she breaks rocks and forms their pieces into other rocks elsewhere. The volcano quakes and splits, vomits rock into the air. A stone pine of soot sprouts from its peak. She sprints uphill, a streak of skin and light.

The lava shimmers, bubbles, spits. Some lands near her. She steps aside. The ash-green sea reAects the roil-black sky. The last cormorants Aee,

darkness against dark. Red searches for a sign. She is missing something. She does not know what. She ponders skies and oceans for a while, wonders.

While Red looks away, a gob of lava splashes toward her face. She catches it in her palm without looking. Her skin, if it were the sort of skin the panicked villagers below wear around their meat, should char. It is not, does not.

Too long watching. She turns back to the caldera, to the welling lava. She stops.

Black and gold vein the rising red. Some suns’ surfaces look like this, when she visits them on shore leave. That’s not what arrests her.

The shifting colors form words that last mere moments, in handwriting now familiar. As the lava Aows, those words change.

She reads. Her lips frame syllables one by one. She commits the words the 1re frames to the old kind of memory. There are cameras in her eyes, which she does not use for this. A recording mechanism clamps around the strand of 1ber in her skull which might be mistaken for an optic nerve; she turns it oP, which the Agency does not think she can do. The lava overAows its lip. She had meant to break this high promontory on which she stands, to make a sort of spout, spilling molten rock down her predetermined channel. Rather, she stands and watches.

Below, the village burns. Without her capstone ePort at the peak, her dikes and redoubts work less well, but the mathematician still has time to grab her

wax tablets at least. The boats leave. They get far enough away to survive the earthquake wave as their homes tumble into the sea.

Red has not quite failed. She shakes her head and walks away, hoping this is the last Atlantis they will send her back to save. She remembers.

The volcano stills. Winds part the clouds, in time, and leave the sky blue. The seeker scrambles up the slick and barren hill. Strands of thin,

glistening volcanic glass cluster near the cooling lava. In another time and place they will be called Pele’s Hair. The seeker gathers them by hand, like Aowers, humming.


My careful Cardinal—

Let me tell you a secret: I loathe Atlantis. Every last single Atlantis across all strands. It’s a putrid thread. Everything you’ve likely been taught about Garden and my Shift should lead you to believe we treasure it as a bastion of good works, the original Platonic ideal for how a civilisation ought to be: How many bright-eyed adolescents have poured the fervour of their souls into lives imagined there? Magic! In1nite wisdom! Unicorns! The gods themselves made Aesh! The work we do to maintain these notions is more subtle than you might think, given the publishing peccadilloes of a dozen twentieth centuries. What a robust priesthood Atlantis must have had to support so many earnest young things pitching their past lives in its temples!

But what a dreary place. Stagnant, sick as a sucking wound. A successful experiment with disgusting results. The volcano was the best thing to ever happen to it: Now it’s legend, possibility, mystery, a far more generative engine than anything it developed over a few thousand years.

That’s what we treasure. That’s us, always: the volcano and the wave.

Thank you for your words on eating. After weeks of ship’s biscuit they were especially welcome. I should tell you, as Mrs. Leavitt would, that it’s customary to send letters that can be opened without ruining the seal, but I appreciate your innovation more than I can say.

What I can say: It was very cold out on the ice. Your letter warmed me.

Your talk of ideographic signatures and operational security brought to mind some grooming work I did among a few strands’ worth of Bess of Hardwick’s botanists. While there it was my pleasure to observe correspondence between them and their Lady; just how layered and complex plain speech could be, how many secrets wrapped in the banner of Sincerity (a word commonly invented in sixteenth

centuries). Even that ideographic signature could easily be a lie, of course: counterfeit stamps, sealed letters hidden under separate cover, the wrong colour of wax or silk Aossing. How much glorious double-talk took place while Mary, Queen of Scots, was under her roof! I assure you that cryptography pales in comparison; imagine a cipher made up of interlocking moods shifting in response to environmental stimuli.

Also, standardized spelling wasn’t yet a feature of English. Forging someone’s handwriting was wasted ePort if you didn’t also learn their idiosyncratic orthography. Funnily enough, that would prove to be the undoing of latter-century forgers. Chatterton, that Marvellous Boy, et cetera.

We make so much of lettercraft literal, don’t we? Whacked seals aside. Letters as time travel, time-travelling letters. Hidden meanings.

I wonder what you see me saying here.

Absent from your mention of food—so sweet, so savoury—was any mention of hunger. You spoke of the lack of need, yes—no lion in pursuit, no “animalist procreative desperation,” and these lead to enjoyment, certainly. But hunger is a many-splendoured thing; it needn’t be conceived only in limbic terms, in biology. Hunger, Red— to sate a hunger or to stoke it, to feel hunger as a furnace, to trace its edges like teeth—is this a thing you, singly, know? Have you ever had a hunger that whetted itself on what you fed it, sharpened so keen and bright that it might split you open, break a new thing out?

Sometimes I think that’s what I have instead of friends.

I hope it isn’t too hard to read this. Best I could do on short notice

—hope it reaches you before the island breaks around you.

Write to me in London next.


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