Chapter no 8

This is how You Lose the Time War

London Next—the same day, month, year, but one strand over—is the kind of London other Londons dream: sepia tinted, skies strung with dirigibles, the viciousness of empire acknowledged only as a rosy backdrop glow redolent of spice and petalled sugar. Mannered as a novel, 1lthy only where story requires it, all meat pies and monarchy—this is a place Blue loves, and hates herself for loving.

She sits in a Mayfair teahouse, in a corner, back to the wall with one eye on the door—some spycraft rules transcend both time and space—and the other on a stylised map of the New World. She 1nds it slightly incongruous—the teahouse favours a decidedly Orientalist aesthetic—but eclecticism is one of the many things Blue cherishes about the 1bres of this particular strand.

Her hair now is black and thick and long, deftly styled into a high chignon girdled in braids, carefully twisted curls clustering at her nape, drawing attention to the length and slope of her neck. Her dress is modest and neat, not quite at the cutting edge of fashion; it’s been a couple of years since the Princess line was new, but she suits it in charcoal grey. She is not here to play a role; she is here to be invisible.

She has observed, with pleasure, the very 1ne china of which the establishment boasts: Meissen’s Ming Dragon, sinuous as arteries, persimmon bright against gilt-edged bone white. She looks forward to her own pot, anticipates the dark, smoky, malty path her chosen tea will pick between the notes of candied rose, delicate bergamot, champagne and muscat and violet.

Her server arrives, quietly, unobtrusively laying out the Meissen tiered cake tray, teapot, sugar bowl. As she settles the teacup on its saucer, however, Blue’s hand snaps out to circle her retreating wrist. The server looks terri1ed.

“This set,” says Blue, adjusting, softening her eyes into kindness, her grip into a caress, “is mismatched.”

“I’m so sorry, miss,” says the server, biting her lip. “I’d already made the pot, but the cup was cracked, and I thought you’d not want to wait longer for

your tea, and all the other sets were spoken for on account of it’s a busy time of day, but if you’re happy to wait I could—”

“No,” she says, and her smile is like clouds parting; the withdrawal of her hand into her lap is an erasure, a thing the server imagined, surely, this woman is a perfect picture of a lady, “it’s very beautiful. Thank you.”

The server ducks her head and retreats back into the kitchen. Blue stares intently at the teacup, its saucer and spoon: Blue Italian, classical 1gures harvesting grain, carrying water forever beneath the rim.

She pours her tea, delicately, without straining the leaves. She lifts her teaspoon to the light—can see that it’s coated with a downthread substance she thinks she recognises but sniPs to be sure. She wills herself not to look around, commands every atom of her body into stillness, forbids the need to leap into the kitchen and pursue and hunt and catch—

Instead, she stirs the spoon, empty, into the tea, and watches as the leaves unclump, swirl, spindle into letters. Each rotation is slow, and she marks paragraph breaks with small sips; every sip undoes the letters until she swirls them into meaning again.

BrieAy she wonders if the hardness in her throat is poison, her inability to swallow around it anaphylactic. This does not frighten her.

She closes her eyes against the alternative, which does.

When the tea and letter are 1nished, clumps remain; she reads the dregs as a postscript. Easy enough to do when the New World map matches it so precisely; easy to read the discrepancy as direction.

She dabs at her mouth, lifts the teacup, places it upside down beneath the boot of her heel, and grinds it so hard and swift that its destruction makes no sound.

After she’s gone, the seeker, dressed as help, armed with dustpan and brush, collects the remnants, gathers them like rosebuds. When she is out of sight, she cuts the mix of clay and bone and leaf into three tidy lines, tightly rolls up a bank note, and inhales sharply enough to feel smoke behind her eyes.


Dearest 0000FF,

Common cause on Atlantis—who would have thought? I suppose no thread’s one thing; they train us full con1dent in that knowledge. Each has facets, hooks, barbs, useful in diPerent ways, depending on articulation. The novice believes a single change will make a thread thus, or thus. An event—an invasion or a spasm or a sigh—is like a hammer: one side blunt and perfect for driving nails, the other clawed to pry them free. And, like hammers, you store Atlantises out of sight when not in use: stick ’em in a drawer somewhere safe till the next need comes around.

I wonder, in that light, how much of your work has helped me, and the other way round—a question beyond my calculative capacity. I’d ask the Chaos Oracle, but I have enough trouble with the higher-ups at present. I had to step fast after your last letter caught me napping. Commandant wanted explanations, as Commandant tends to, after the sinking island took so many treasures with it. A brief lapse in efficiency, according to the Agency’s models, but well within tolerance considering my track record. But added to the inroads your side’s made against our more exposed deep-cover teams—well, I shouldn’t talk shop. What a bore, your tea salon pals would say.

I summarize: It’s been too long since my last letter.

Strand 233’s Atlantis was not the most oPensive of the brood, and I spent little enough time there. Joke as I might, I see the value. Humans need marks to strive for—but imperfect systems decay. So we build them ideals. Change agents climb upthread, 1nd helpful strands, preserve what matters, and let what doesn’t fall to dust: mulch for the more perfect future’s seed.

Mrs. Leavitt suggests relying on metaphors one’s correspondent— that’s you, I think?—will 1nd meaningful. I confess I don’t entirely know what’s meaningful to you. I fall back on assumptions: seeds and

grass, growing things. It verges on stereotype. And when you write me, you write in furnace and in Aame.

You ask about hunger.

You ask, in particular, about my hunger. The short answer: no.

The longer answer: I don’t think so?

We sate needs before they strike. In this body, an organ (a designed, implanted, rigorously tested organ) seated somewhere above my stomach registers the moment my metabolism requires fuel and stops the lizard-brained old subsystems that would make me keen and irritable and blunt my thoughts—all those tricks Dame Evolution plays to make us hunters, killers, seekers and 1nders and gorgers. I can disable the organ when I must, but it’s so much more stable to receive a status report than to feel weak.

But the hunger you describe—that blade jutting from the skin, the weathering as of a hillside often struck by storm, the hollowness—it sounds beautiful and familiar.

When I was a girl, I loved reading. An archaic pastime, I know; the index and download are faster, more efficient, oPering superior retention and acquisition of knowledge. But I read, antique volumes handed down and fresh-replicated books: How strange to uncover things in sequence! And so I read a comic book once, about Socrates. In the comic book, he was a soldier—he was, that part’s true, I asked him—and one night, as his fellows lay down to sleep, he started thinking. He stood, immobile, lost in thought, until the dawn—at which instant he found the answer to his question.

It all seemed very romantic to me at the time. So I left my pod and wandered upthread and far away, far from the chatter and the mutual observation. I found a hilltop on a small world, breathable but barren, and I stood there like Socrates in the comic book, lost in thought, weight on one foot, and I did not move.

The sun set. The stars rose. (They are a rose, right? Or something? Dante said that.) I realized that as my ears grew used to the silence, I could still hear the others: Our chatter swarmed the heavens; our voices echoed from the stars. This was not how Socrates stood, or Li Bai or

Qu Yuan either. My isolation, my experiment, had caused a small sensation among those who cared for me, and for whom I cared, and that sensation spread. Lenses and eyes turned upon me.

I was, I think, thirteen.

I received suggestions: philosophy textbooks, meditation guides, oPers of practice and alliance. They crowded round. Whispers in my ears: Ave you okay? Do you need help? You can talk to us. You almays can. There were tears. Other organs bind that process too, weeping— they keep our eyes clear and minds sharp, but chemistry is chemistry;

cortisol, cortisol.

It feels harder to write than it should. It feels easier to write than it should, as well. I’m contradicting myself. The geometers would be ashamed.

I sent them away.

Each being’s entitled to her privacy, so I refused to let them see me. I was the only person on that tiny rock, and I made the world go dark.

Wind blows. High places grow cold at night. Sharp rocks hurt my feet. For the 1rst time in thirteen years I was alone. I, whatever I was, whatever I am, tumbled 1rst up, into the stars, then down to the broken land. I dug into the soil. Night birds called; something like a wolf, but solitary and larger, with six legs and double-banked eyes, padded past.

The tears dried.

And I felt lonely. I missed those voices. I missed the minds behind them. I wanted to be seen. That need dug into the heart of me. It felt good. I’m not certain how to compare this to something you would know, but, imagine a person melded to a Thing, an arti1cial god the size of mountains, built for making war in the far corners of the cosmos. Imagine that great weight of metal all around her, pressing her down, giving her strength, its hoses melding with her Aesh. Imagine she shears the hoses oP, steps out: frail, sapped, weak, free.

I was light, hollowed, hungry. The sun rose. I found no revelation. I’m not Socrates. (I know Socrates, I served with Socrates, and you, senator . . . But I digress.) But I walked on, from that place to another, and from that to another in turn, until, years later, I came home.

And when Commandant found me, slid inside me, said, there’s work for those like you, I wondered if all Agents were like me. They weren’t—I found that later. But we’re all deviant in our diPerent ways.

Is that hunger? I don’t know.

No friends, though? Blue! That’s not at all what I would have thought. I don’t know—I suppose we see you all curling around camp1res singing old struggle songs.

Have you been lonely?

I hope the tea’s well. Good? Well. I’ll look for you next in a more public forum.

Yours, Red

PS. I hesitate to write this, but—I’ve noticed my letters run long. If you’d rather I grow more concise, I can. I don’t want to presume.

PPS. Apologies for the imprecision of my salutation—I think salutation’s what Mrs. Leavitt calls that? I forgot what name the Strand 8 C19 Londoners gave that shade of blue on imported porcelain. Would have used it if I remembered.

PPPS. We’re still going to win.

You'll Also Like