Chapter no 2

This is how You Lose the Time War

A glass jar of water boils in an MRI machine. In de ance of proverbs, Blue watches it.

When Blue wins-which is always-she moves on to the next thing. She savours her victories in retrospect, between missions, recalls them only while travelling (upthread into the stable past or downthread into the fraying future) as one recalls beloved lines of poetry. She combs or snarls the strands of time’s braid with the nesse or brutality required of her, and leaves.

She is not in the habit of sticking around, because she is not in the habit of failing.

The MRI machine is in a twenty- rst-century hospital, remarkably empty -evacuated, Blue observes-but never conspicuous to begin with, nestled in the green heart of a forest bisected by borders.

The hospital was meant to be full. Blue’s job was a delicate matter of infection-one doctor in particular to intrigue with a new strain of bacteria, to lay the groundwork for twisting her world towards or away from biological warfare, depending on how the other side responded to Garden’s move. But the opportunity’s vanished, the loophole closed, and the only thing there for

Blue to nd is a jar labeled READ BY BUBBLING.

So she lingers by the MRI machine, musing as she does on the agonies of symmetry recording the water’s randomness-the magnetic bones settled like reading glasses on the thermodynamic face of the universe, registering each bloom and burst of molecule before it transforms. Once it translates the last of the water’s heat into numbers, she takes the printout in her right hand and ts the key of it into the lock of the letter-strewn sheet in her left.

She reads, and her eyes widen. She reads, and the data get harder to extract from the depth of her st’s clench. But she laughs, too, and the sound echoes down the hospital’s empty halls. She is unaccustomed to being thwarted. Something about it tickles, even as she meditates on how to phase-shift failure into opportunity.

Blue shreds the data sheet and the cipher text, then picks up a crowbar.

In her wake, a seeker enters the hospital room’s wreck, nds the MRI machine, breaks into it. The jar of water is cool. She tips its tepid liquid down her throat.

My most insidious Blue,

How does one begin this sort of thing? It’s been so long since I last started a new conversation. We’re not so isolated as you are, not so locked in our own heads. We think in public. Our notions inform one another, correct, expand, reform. Which is why we win.

Even in training, the other cadets and I knew one other as one knows a childhood dream. I’d greet comrades I thought I’d never met before, only to nd we’d already crossed paths in some strange corner of the cloud before we knew who we were.

So: I am not skilled in taking up correspondence. But I have scanned enough books, and indexed enough examples, to essay the form.

Most letters begin with a direct address to the reader. I’ve done that already, so next comes shared business: I’m sorry you couldn’t meet the good doctor. She’s important. More to the point, her sister’s children will be, if she visits them this afternoon and they discuss patterns in birdsong-which she will have done already by the time you decipher this note. My cunning methods for spiriting her from your clutches? Engine trouble, a good spring day, a suspiciously e ective and cheap remote-access software suite her hospital purchased two years ago, which allows the good doctor to work from home. Thus we braid Strand 6 to Strand 9, and our glorious crystal future shines so bright I gotta wear shades, as the prophets say.

Remembering our last encounter, I thought it best to ensure you’d twist no other groundlings to your purpose, hence the bomb threat. Crude, but e ective.

I appreciate your subtlety. Not every battle’s grand, not every weapon erce. Even we who ght wars through time forget the value of a word in the right moment, a rattle in the right car engine, a nail in the right horseshoe . . . It’s so easy to crush a planet that you may overlook the value of a whisper to a snowbank.

Address the reader-done. Discuss shared business-done, almost.

I imagine you laughing at this letter, in disbelief. I have seen you laugh, I think-in the Ever Victorious Army’s ranks, as your dupes burned the Summer Palace and I rescued what I could of the Emperor’s marvelous clockwork devices. You marched scornful and erce through the halls, hunting an agent you did not know was me.

So I imagine re glinting o your teeth. You think you’ve wormed inside me-planted seeds or spores in my brain-whatever vegetal metaphor suits your fancy. But here I’ve repaid your letter with my own. Now we have a correspondence. Which, if your superiors discover it, will start a chain of questions I anticipate you’ll nd uncomfortable. Who’s infecting whom? We know from our hoarse Trojans, in my time. Will you respond, establishing complicity, continuing our self-destructive paper trail, just to get in the last word?

Will you cut o , leaving my note to spin its fractal math inside you?

I wonder which I’d rather.

Finally: conclude. This was fun.

My regards to the vast and trunkless legs of stone,

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