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PART SIX: COUNTDOWN

CHAPTER 22

Dom was not a religious man, though he understood and respected the human need for religion. The universe was vast and dark, and it was overwhelming to think about. Someone had to have made it; it couldn't exist merely because of a series of happy accidents or even as the end result of an frightening number of purely mathematical calculations. Regardless, the creation or the equation were beyond our comprehension, but that didn't stop us from staring up at the night sky and wondering.

We built churches to not only keep out the dark, but to show that we, too, could make things. Grandiose things. As Dom looked up at the high ceiling in the nave of the Church of the Library (as he was now thinking of the place where the train had taken him), he thought of all the physics and math that went into supporting a stone ceiling nearly one hundred meters off the ground. It was both a homage to the creation (or the equation) in which we lived, or it was a demonstration of our own meager understanding.

Dom recalled a late night conversation he had had with a man from the Army Corps of Engineers. Normandy. After the war. Both sides had bombed everything larger than a cow shed. They had been in the ruin of a local cathedral, sharing a bottle of young brandy and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. It wasn't a large church—not like the Gothic ones that reared halfway to heaven—but its stone walls had been thick enough to withstand a bombardment that had leveled the rest of the village. The roof of the church, however, had not been as lucky. Look at these walls, the engineer had said. They've been here five hundred years. Quarried and carried here by hand. Cut and stacked by hand. Based on a design made by a man who was working with tools that were ancient when his grandfather had been born. Angle, thrust, dispersal of weight: all of these things calculated on a abacas, for crying out loud.

The architect had sighed, the nearly empty bottle of brandy forgotten in his hand. I couldn't do it, he said. Not like they did. It was—and still is—an act of faith that built this church.

The Church of the Library had an ambulatory, a aisle that embraced the altar, and along it, there were a number of small alcoves that, traditionally, were used as chapels for various saints that were venerated by the congregation of the church. Dom found statues in many of them. They were similar enough in their countenances and attire that Dom suspected they had been carved by the same sculptor (or, more likely, by the sculptor's students). They were—with a single exception—male, with heavy beards and stern brows. Some appeared to be wearing armor under their robes, and several held instruments of office in their hands. As a group, they stared at things unseen, with expressions Dom found unsettling.

The single exception in this collection of saints was a hooded figure—Dom thought it was a woman, based on the sweep and curve of the marble. The figure had no face, however; in fact, the space within the hood was delicately carved as the drape of cloth around the sandaled foot protruding from the robe. She looked down, as if staring at the supplicant who stood before her raised platform. One hand was held against the chest, clutching something which only the sculptor knew, and the other hand was outstretched and open. Dom stared at the hooded woman's empty palm, and he felt the shiver coil around the base of his spine. The marble was scarred on her palm, as if there had been something there. Someone had taken a chisel to the statue.

"Mooble?"

Dom turned away from the chapel with the hooded figure. Klaatu had returned, and he was carrying a small box with a simple latch that looked like it had been run over by an entire convey of trucks.

"That'll do," Dom said.

They returned to the circle of books, where Dom used the lid to scoop the key and its chain into the box. He let out a sigh of relief when he closed the lid, and after securing the latch, he tucked the box on a nearby shelf, behind a copy of Jabir's Kitab Al-Ahjar, thinking that the Islamic alchemist's Book of Stones should be enough protection.

"Why does Mooble hide the—?" Klaatu's speaker device spat out a word that Dom didn't know.

For that reason alone, he thought, if your word for whatever this key really is isn't translatable into a language I know, I want nothing to do with it. "Mooble is not ready for . . . " Dom said out loud.

"When—" Klaatu started.

"We're going to do things a little differently," Dom said, sidestepping the snouter's unfinished question. "Let's go talk to someone in charge, shall we?"

 

Maneuvering the raven feather took a long time, but Elze wasn't going anywhere. Occasionally, she would twitch enough to trigger the motion-sensitive lighting, and each time, she would have to pretend she was reacting to something in a dream. Eyes closed. Body tensed. A restlessness traveling through her hips or arms or feet. The phantom would fade, and she would become still again. The camera would watch her, unblinkingly, and then the lights would fade again. Each time, she got a little closer to her goal.

The fabric of her restraints was some sort of synthetic fiber that was resistant to tearing. The tip of the raven feather wasn't sharp, but it was pointed. Even though it was hollow, she was able to pinch it and grind it against the strap attached to her right wrist. It was tedious work, akin to the work of one rock scraping against a hillside. Over time—and she did have time, didn't she?—the tip of the raven feather left its mark on the strap. And then the mark became a scratch, and the scratch became a groove, and finally, the groove became a tear. A tiny rip, that, with properly applied pressure, would grow.

Elze had formulated what would happen when she got her right wrist free. She had played it over and over and over in her head: right wrist, left wrist, chest, waist, thighs, knees, right foot, left foot. She thought she could undo all her restraints in less than two minutes. Once she started though, that clock in her head—the one which had not been moving—would starting counting down. How much time will I have? she wondered as she took several deep breaths, filling her waveframe's lungs with oxygen. Readying herself for action.

There was only way to find out, wasn't there? She took one final breath, and when she let it out, the clock started in her head. Tick, tick, tick.

Getting out of the restraints took closer to three minutes. She spent another minute stamping her feet, trying to get some sensation back into her numb feet.

She heard the lock on the door click. She checked the clock in her head. How much time did she have left?

 

There was an open archway at the end of one of the arms of the transept. It led to a warren of tunnels that reminded Dom of the utilitarian hallways of the installation beneath the Eiffel Tower, though the tunnels were not marked in any fashion that was evident to Dom. Klaatu knew the way, however, and he quickly led Dom through a section of tunnel where there were numerous side passages and drape-covered openings. They reached an open area that was about as long as the nave of the Church of the Library, though the ceiling wasn't nearly as high. Floating along like soap bubbles were more of the glowing orbs Dom had seen in the church. These were smaller and dimmer, but they were sufficient for their task.

There were other snouters in this common area, and Dom was forced to reassess how he thought of them. They all wore hooded cloaks in a variety of fashions, and most of them moved about with their hoods raised. But there were a few who did not, and Dom got his first look at an unmasked snouter. Their heads and faces were covered with fur. Their noses were larger than their eyes, which suggested a difference in primary sensory input, and their teeth were—

Dom blinked. He had been trying to process the snouters as human, albeit changed by their life underground, but he realized he had been thinking about them all wrong. They were humanoid, but they weren't human. They were almost like bipedal moles.

Klaatu gestured for him to hurry, and Dom stopped gawking at the snout—the mole people—who were, to be fair, gawking back at him. Klaatu led him to a covered portal at the end of the common area, which was guarded by two pairs of attentive soldiers who were bigger and more armored than any of the soldiers Dom had seen earlier. One of the quartet nodded at Klaatu, his speaker box squawking in the tongue of the mole people.

For a moment, Dom thought of Herbert George and the book that had made him famous. In The Time Machine, the Anachronist Man, discovers the Morlocks and Eloi—evolutionary futures of humanity that were stylized metaphors for cultural disparities Wells saw in his own time. The Eloi were the ultimate expression of the leisure class, listless and unable to fend for themselves. The Morlocks, on the other hand, had been driven underground where they worked the vast industrial machinery that encouraged the Eloi in their indolence. Wells's narrator discovers the relationship between the two cultures to be more complicated—more symbiotic—than it first appeared. After a few adventures, he manages to return to his machine and escape back to his own time.

As he and Klaatu entered the chamber behind the heavy drape, Dom wondered if Wells was—like him—some kind of traveler. Had he actually seen the future he depicted in his novel? Or was the book merely the product of a vivid imagination?

Klaatu started buzzing as soon as they entered the room, and Dom forced himself to pay attention. There were a lot of new faces in the room, all of whom were looking at Dom with an air of expectancy, like he was the ice cream man arriving at a kid's birthday party. Like he was the savior everyone had been waiting for . . .

 

Elze slapped the gun of the first beetle-man aside, and followed up with an elbow strike to the side of the beetle-man's neck. His helmet prevented her from doing a lot of damage, but the force of the blow would rattle him, and that was all she was hoping for at the moment. She kicked the beetle-man in the hip, slowing him down, and then she finished her pivot around the first. She wrapped her hand around the first beetle-man's weapon hand, sliding her finger over his inside the trigger guard. He wiggled against her, but she had a firm grip with her left hand on his uniform. The PDR chattered when she pressed the beetle-man's finger against the trigger, and rounds from the weapon stitched their way across the second beetle-man's torso. She pulled the gun to the right, dropping the third beetle-man who was still in the frame of the door. Releasing her hold on the weapon, she put her hands on the first beetle-man's helmet and twisted her hands in opposite directions, breaking the beetle-man's neck.

Time elapsed: eleven seconds.

Elze snatched the beetle-man's PDR from his slack fingers. The muzzle of a PDR poked around the corner of the door frame, and she stumbled back to the table she had been tied to. As she rolled over the top of the table, bullets spanged off the wall behind her. Landing in a crouch, she aimed down the sights of the PDR, and when one of the beetle-men outside the room showed some leg, she chewed it up with a burst from her gun. The beetle-man stumbled and flailed, and tracking him, she put more rounds into his helmet.

Time elapsed: seventeen seconds.

Nothing happened for the next nine seconds, and in the last three seconds of that span, Elze decided she had been waiting too long. As she moved from behind the table, a metal object came sailing into the room. It hit the floor and took a bounce that spun it under the table.

Elze leaped onto the table and made herself as flat as possible against its surface. The table was fixed to the floor and—

The grenade went off, filing the room with heat and light and sound. Elze—and the tabletop—were picked up and thrown across the room. Everything slowed down, her wave frame's response to a flood of neuro-stimulants released in conjunction with her body's adrenaline response, and Elze had time—she had all the time in the world, didn't she?—to focus on the shape and orientation of the doorway. She curled up, and when the tabletop slammed against the open door, she was catapulted through the opening and into the hall.

She hit the far wall roughly, the impact knocking the gun out of her hand. She ignored the loss of the weapon, and used her hands to stick the landing when she fell to the floor. Distantly, she targeted three more beetle-men arranged around the door to her prison. Two on her left, one on her right.

Time elapsed: thirty-one seconds.

She went for the pair on her left. Heel strike to a kneecap. Elbow chop to the ribs. Hands against a helmet, banging it against the wall. Once. Twice. Spinning the wobbly beetle-man into the one with the shattered kneecap.

Time elapsed: thirty-six seconds.

The last beetle-man fired his weapon, and she went flat against the wall. He tracked toward her, and she pushed off, going low. Smoke was billowing out of the room where the grenade had gone off, and she disappeared into the swirling haze. The beetle-man came after her, trying to get a clear shot, and she wrapped herself around his trunk as he came through the door. Up, around, legs spinning. He wasn't clear of the door, and her thigh struck the doorframe, arresting her take-down move. The beetle-man stumbled forward, reaching for her, and she lunged her body back, pulling him with her.

Surprising her, he came readily, and when they hit the floor, she was on the bottom. The breath was driven from her lungs, and her grip loosened. She grunted in pain as the beetle-man drove an elbow into her ribs, and she barely got her head out of the way as he snapped his helmet back in an attempt to break her skull.

She scissored her legs around his torso before he could turn over and got one arm around under his, locking his shoulder in place. He arched his back, putting pressure on her spine. She had to twist her body and lean back to avoid his helmet. One of his blows glanced off her shoulder, and the shock numbed her arm for a second—nearly an eternity in a fight like this—and she nearly lost control of his arm.

Time elapsed: forty-two seconds.

The beetle-man put his feet against the floor and shoved, sliding both of them. She felt them collide with the body of another beetle-man, and when her assailant shoved again, she flailed at the corpse with her free hand. She got ahold of the beetle-man uniform and then nearly lost it when her assailant shoved them again. They slammed against the wall, and she cried out. Encouraged by her distress, the beetle-man braced his feet against the floor and pushed. She was caught between him and the wall, the weight of his body pinning her. Her neck was at a painful angle, an angle that was hurting more with each passing micro-second. Her time was running.

Elapsed time: forty-six seconds.

How much does she have left?

Her hand encountered something hard. She had hung on to the corpse. It was right next to her. Her fingers grasped and explored, trying to figure out what the object was. It felt like a handle of some kind. Her neck ached, and shards of pain were radiating into her skull. She was having trouble focusing. Her other arm was starting to shake. She was going to lose control soon. The beetle-man flexed and shoved her incrementally closer to the wall.

A shock rod! It was the handle of one of those shock rods. Her fingers fumbled around the handle, trying to pull it free. Why was it so slippery? Why couldn't she get her fingers to work?

Elapsed time: fifty-one seconds.

She got it! She focused all her remaining strength on the handle of the rod, the bones in her hand pressing hard against her skin. She felt a vibration run through the rod when she flicked it on, and when she slapped it against the beetle-man, he jerked and thrashed. Fortunately, his feet left the floor, which relieved the pressure against her neck. She slapped him over and over as she struggled to push both of them away from the wall. She kept hitting him with the rod until its charge ran out.

The clock in her head wound down. Elapsed time: sixty seconds.

On her knees next to the beetle-man, her eyes stinging, her lungs aching from the acrid air she was gulping in, Elze found herself smiling. Time enough, she thought.

*

CHAPTER 23

There were eight mole people waiting for Dom and Klaatu in a room that looked more like a community archive than an audience chamber. There were numerous tapestries on the walls, and they appeared as if they depicted a comprehensive history of the bewhiskered tunnelers. Artifacts filled a number of display cases, and a taller case on Dom’s right held several mannequins wearing ornate robes.

The mole people started bowing as Dom took in dizzying array of history on display, and he tore himself away from his examination. He bowed quickly, bending at the waist, trying to get in sync with the others.

Klaatu introduced the closest mole. “Versheen Ahwah.” Ahwah was a round mole who wore a green robe with yellow lines embroidered down the front. Ahwah hooted with delight at being introduced and continued bowing. Dom bowed once more and then settled for nodding in time with the rotund mole’s motions.

“Nhutheel.” The second mole was taller than Ahwah, and his face had a pinched quality to it, reminding Dom of a lean racing hound. Having bowed with the others, he did not do so again, and Dom offered him a brief flicker of a smile in appreciation.

“Baenta Baetha,” Klaatu said, indicating the third mole person. Klaatu’s speaker box sputtered with a hint of emotional undertone, suggesting there was something different about this official, but Dom had to admit to himself that he was failing to appreciate the finer differences between each of them. I’m being a terrible guest, he thought, mentally castigating himself for his lack of attentiveness. As a way to survive many fancy dress parties over the years, he had taught himself to memorize minuscule details about the folks he met. People liked being remembered when he saw them again, and there had been more than one occasion when such recall had created opportunities for him. It wasn’t that the mole people were so foreign to him that he couldn’t parse differences between them. Ahwah’s fur was a russet color, while Baenta Baetha’s fur reminded him of the saffron robes worn by Tibetan monks, and Mhomentoe—the mole person Klaatu was introducing as Dom wrestled with these thoughts—had a gnarled scar that curled into the white fur on his throat. There was another reason why he was having trouble, and the thought kept scampering away from him as he tried to pin it down.

Was it his memory palace? Dom gave a distracted nod as Klaatu introduced the fifth mole ambassador. Here is the antechamber, he thought as he brought up the construct in his mind. Here is the lectern where I keep the index. It was a quarto, bound in Moroccan calfskin, with Turkish spot endpapers in yellow and green and oxblood. Head and tail bands were yellow and black, following the traditional alchemical order of citrinitas followed by nigredo.

“Mooble?”

Dom realized Klaatu was speaking to him. He closed the massive book in his memory palace (yellow and black head and tail bands, just like . . .) and offered the devoted snouter a well-meaning smile. He realized he had missed Klaatu’s introduction of at least two of the mole people. I’ll catch their names later, he thought, even though there was a voice deep inside his head—lost somewhere in the palace—that was shouting otherwise. As Klaatu rattled off the lengthy honorifics of the tall mole person who was dressed in layers of white and blue, Dom was distracted by the rank of the other dignitaries. Ahwah, Baenta Baetha, Mhomentoe, and the one whose name he didn’t remember. They were standing in a row, and his mind seized on the color of their fur: red, yellow, the white patch on Mhomentoe’s throat, and the last one’s fur was much darker than the others. It was the alchemical cycle in reverse.

Head and tail bands . . .

Something wasn’t right.

 

Even though she expected more beetle-men at any moment, Elze dragged the bodies into her prison. There was nothing she could do about the blood stains, but she hoped the jumble of bodies in the room would slow her pursuers down for a minute or so. She took the belt from one of the guards and utilized all of its loops and hooks for as much gear as she could manage: two shock rods, an additional magazine of ammunition for the PDRs, several keycards, and a pair of handcuffs. With a PDR in either hand, she left her prison and went to the right.

She reached the nearest intersection and examined the markings on the wall, trying to parse the symbols against the ones she had seen when they had first arrived at the base. She couldn’t formulate a clear understanding of them, and so she went with an instinctive urge. This way, she thought, making a turn to the left.

It turned out to be the wrong choice when the hall made a left-hand turn and then stopped. Frustrated, Elze stared at the wall that blocked the hall. It had been painted the same color as the other walls, but it was clearly older. She could see the faint outline of ancient bricks, and when she peered at the juncture between the bricks and the hall of the base, she realized she was looking at a wall that was wider than the hall. Suddenly curious, she examined the end of the hall more closely. It ends here, she thought. It’s not a barrier.

Perplexed, she went back to the intersection and looked at the symbols again. The markings on the dead-end passage were complex enough that she had—incorrectly—assumed the symbols were indicative of some internal logistics, like “Storage” or “Engineering.” Instead, they must mean “Dead End,” because that was what lay at the end of the hall.

But the same symbols were part of the markings on the passage to the left of the dead end. Did that mean . . . ?

Elze followed the hall. It went on farther than the other, but it, too, turned and ended in a brick wall. According to the map she was constructing in her head, this hall was parallel to the other one, which meant it was possible she was looking at another section of the same brick wall. She scraped at the bricks with the muzzle of a PDR. The paint came off, revealing a muddy red color. She scraped harder, and red dust drifted toward the floor. It’s old, she thought, predating this installation.

She went back to the intersection, and since she had no other options, she followed the hall, past her prison, the door of which was still closed. Ahead, there was another intersection. She stopped and examined the walls. Two of the four passages had the markings she recognized, which meant the lefthand passage was the only way to go.

She was going to meet the response team head-on. There was no other choice.

 

The quarto in Dom’s memory palace was the key to the entire construct. It was the object that he knew better than anything else, because it was the first principle. If he could remember that, he could remember everything else. And he could recall it with incredible detail, but, at the same time, he knew it was wrong. It was a facsimile. A copy built by a master forger that would fool almost everyone. But he had seen enough fakes and forgeries in his time (objectively speaking) to trust his instincts.

The high priest or top mole or chief ambassador or commanding officer—whatever they called the mole person in the white and blue—was jabbering on and on. They were indicating the tapestries on the walls around them, and Dom figured he was being regaled with a not-so-short summary of how they came here. He smiled and nodded, and the others nodded and smiled. Klaatu was the only one who showed any unease about the robed mole’s lengthy monologue. The snouter kept tapping his chest plate, unable to contain his impatience. Tap-TAP-tap-tap, tap-tap, tap, tap-tap-tap. Tap-TAP-tap-tap, tap-tap, tap, tap-tap-tap.

The other moles swayed, caught up in a complex call-and-response that was partly the priest’s narrative and partly Klaatu’s insistent tapping. Dom watched the quartet of moles sway and bob. Red, yellow, white, black. Red, YELLOW, white, BLACK. Red, yellow, white, black. Red, YELLOW—

Head and tail bands . . .

The threads were wrong. He dashed into his memory palace, lunging for the quarto. The book was heavier than he remembered—no, it had weight, which it never had had before—and he closed it with a thump he felt in his tailbone. Yes, the headbands. He traced the fine threads at the top of the binding. They were yellow and black. Citrinitas, the stage of the alchemical process wherein the magnum opus—the Great Work—began to gleam with its own light. Nigredo, however, was an earlier stage, where putrefaction and decay took place. These stages were separated by albedo, a whitening as the Work absorbed the transformative lunar light.

Black and yellow were not adjacent to one another in the Great Work. Why would he put them together on this book? The answer was: he hadn’t.

This wasn’t his book. It was a forgery.

This isn’t real, Dom thought.

 

Elze reached another intersection without seeing anyone. She glanced at the markings on the wall, noted which of the four sets of symbols indicated a dead end, and nodded as the final piece of the puzzle slipped into place. “I’m a fool,” she muttered quietly before she set off down the lefthand passage. You always turn left in labyrinths, she thought grimly. That might be true for finding your way in, but when finding your way out, the opposite should be true. Yet, as she reached the next intersection, she saw that going to the right would result in dead ends.

She turned left again, and several paces down the next hall, there was a door on the right side of the hall. She considered the panel, hesitating to open it, and she noticed black marks on the floor farther along the hall. There were marks on the walls too, and when she sniffed the air tentatively, there was a faint scorched smell. As if something had been burned here not too long ago.

She opened the door, and wasn’t surprised at what she saw inside the room.

She had found her way back to the lab, with its hanging cross and raised well. The rows of old computers were undamaged, and there was no hole in the back wall. Either the room had been completely repaired since she had last been here or . . .

It hadn’t happened, she thought. None of it happened.

She approached the cells. The first one—the one she had been in—was empty. What was in the second made her gasp in dismay.

A maze of restraints and wires filled the narrow box. Suspended in them was a man. His naked body was wrapped with transparent coils, through which circulated an orange liquid. His face was covered with a silver mask, and his hands and feet were encased in rubber gloves. It was some kind of sensory deprivation system, and judging by dozens of cables attached to the back of the mask, whoever was in the rig was being fed a completely false reality.

“Dom?”

She knew they were there before they spoke, and her hands tightened on the grips of her PDRs.

“The son sets,” the Invocator giggled. “Soon the empire of man will end.”

*

CHAPTER 24

The Manifest Invocator swayed between Elze and the platform. One hand twitched and floated as if it was under control of an invisible puppeteer, and their unnaturally stiff face was locked in an expression that was somewhere between unholy glee and dismal rejection. As if Elze needed any further evidence that the Invocator was disassociated with the basic emotional currency of humanity.

A dozen or so beetle-men clustered behind the Invocator. Elze caught sight of Weston in their midst, and there was a tension in his face that she recognized right away. As the beetle-men arranged themselves, she got a better look at Weston. He was wearing his OTP cloak, but it wasn’t dark blue. He had changed the color to a lighter shade, and Elze briefly wondered if he was sending her a message. His hands were tucked beneath the cloak, and when a beetle-man shoved him, he stumbled. Elze realized his hands were tied. Weston was a prisoner.

“Everyone lies,” the Invocator hissed, drawing her attention away from Weston. “Skin-sister does not acknowledge her own flesh. The worm that turned has turned again. And that one”—the Invocator’s hand turned and pointed at the man in the suspension system behind her—“that one does not know what he should believe.”

“What’s this thing doing to him?” Elze asked.

The Invocator made a slurping noise and then giggled again. It took all of Elze’s control to not raise one of her weapons and fire it at that unnatural face. The Invocator moved—tacky-ticky-tack-tack—and when they jerked back into phase, they were hovering near the entrance to Dom’s cell. “It is sucking the lies out of him,” the Invocator said. “The worm knows. The albedo.” The final letter seemed to echo about the room.

“The alchemical work,” Weston provided. “It’s the second part, after the chaotic putrefaction that reduces the material to a more . . . uh, pliable state.”

“Yes, yes,” the Invocator hissed. “When they are pliable, then they can be transformed.”

“Turn it off,” Elze said.

The Invocator shook their head, their simple features blurring. The motion made Elze’s stomach churn. She raised one of her PDRs. “Turn. It. Off.”

The Invocator froze, its face locked into an wide-eyed expression of dismay. “Shame,” they shrieked. “Shame! Shame!”

The front rank of beetle-men reached for their weapons. The PDR in Elze’s left hand barked once, and a beetle-man hiccuped and fell down. For a moment, everyone was as frozen as the Invocator. Elze spoke slowly and clearly. “You have eleven men,” she said. “I have two full magazines, and I am a very good shot.” She demonstrated with the PDR in her right hand, dropping the beetle-man standing next to Weston. “You now have ten men,” she said.

The Invocator’s eyes moved independently: one strayed between Elze and the group of beetle-men clustered around Weston, the other regarded the suspended figure in the cell. Elze couldn’t tell if they were considering their options or trying to make everyone dizzy with their errant eyeballs. She considered—for the eighteenth or ninetieth time—just shooting the Invocator and being done with it.

But what would that solve? There was still the other one—the Egregore—and she wasn’t sure which was worse. And then there was Weston, who was apparently on the outs with the group who had conspired to bring her and Dom to this declination. Or was this another layer to Weston’s deception? Were they trying to convince her that Weston was a double agent when he was actually a triple?

Elze shot another beetle-man. She hadn’t liked how he was twitching. Plus she was aggravated. She disliked not having a plan.

The Invocator’s eyes swam around to focus on Elze, and they cocked their head to one side. A low hissing noise slipped from their pale lips, and their fingers started dancing. They could smell Elze’s indecision.

Behind the Invocator, Dom started thrashing.

 

Ackadeemee Whawardh, the High Honorific of the mole people, prattled on about the stories on the tapestries. When he had started, Klaatu had provided a running translation, but Dom had waved the snouter off after a few minutes. He had also deciphered Klaatu’s insistence tapping. Tap-TAP-tap-tap, tap-tap, tap, tap-tap-tap. Tap-TAP-tap-tap, tap-tap, tap, tap-tap-tap. It was Morse code for “LIES.”

Dom wandered around the chamber, and the mole people followed him. They didn’t get in his way, and as long as he didn’t stray toward the door, their expressions remained fixed and beatific. He looked over at Whawardh. The chief mole person kept turning so he was always facing Dom, and the stories kept spilling out of him. Dom felt like he was at some sort of museum exhibit, where wax models were mysteriously animated to provide a lengthy narrative about some historical event.

Except this was all happening in his head.

He was fairly certain he was dreaming all of this, but he couldn’t fathom how it was happening. Or when it had started. If he was to reconsider the past day or so (relatively speaking), the obvious break was shortly after meeting Elze in his apartment. They had talked for a few hours. Had she hypnotized him somehow? Or had she performed some clever auto-suggestion which had taken root later that night?

If that were the case, then everything after was suspect. Dom liked this theory, because, indeed, shortly after breakfast that morning, events had taken a strange turn. The OotSee Elze had run after. The door they had slipped through. The sand world. The beetle-men and their skyboat. Weston, who was and wasn’t Belette. Those two monstrosities. It was all a fever dream.

And quite an extensive one, he thought. He glanced at the artifacts in the glass case beside him. There were several drinking vessels, some broken sticks, a thicker stick with a piece of onyx lashed to one end, and a broken wooden mask, adorned with feathers and painted shells. Each object had an accompanying card that explained its relevance. It looked like a museum display. The only difference was the text on the cards was written in a language Dom couldn’t fathom.

After the First World War, Dom had spent some time in Switzerland, where he had met an introspective scholar who taken an interest in Dom’s trauma from the war. Dom had spent a number of sessions with the man, talking about the dreams he had during and after the war. Their relationship deepened during this time, and his sessions became less analytical reflection on his trauma and more of deep conversations about terminology the scholar was trying to articulate. The scholar believed dreams were not random; they were, in fact, aspects of both the self and something greater than the self—a collective unconsciousness, as he called it. It was from this shared space that instincts, archetypes, and universal symbols arose—elements that prefigure and define human consciousness. Dreaming, in many ways, occurred outside of time.

A tremor ran through the room. Dom glanced at the others, looking for sign that they had felt it as well. Whawardh faltered for a moment, but he drew in a deep breath and hurried on with his extemporaneous retelling of the long tapestry on the back wall of the room. Of the attendant ministers, only Mhomentoe seemed to notice something had happened. There was a flicker of emotion on the mole person’s face—something that wasn’t the idiot grin of a newborn child.

Klaatu’s speaker made a hooting noise, like a querulous owl asking about the moon’s mood. Dom felt like the noise should have meant something to him, and he tried to focus his thoughts. Whawardh’s voice was both hypnotic and annoying, and Dom entertained the idea of making that noise stop. He looked at the display case, and his attention fell on the onyx club. That would do the trick, he thought.

Klaatu said something. Why was he speaking in Latin? Dom thought, confused by the sounds. The tiny writing on the display cards shifted, and for a moment, the letters looked like the Latin alphabet, but as another tremor caused everything to shiver, the letters changed again. Klaatu coughed something in a guttural tongue, and Dom twitched. He had heard words like those during the long nights when he and the other soldiers in the trenches huddled in the mud, praying the sickly fog would not find them.

Dom smacked his hands against the glass case and did nothing more than hurt his palms. The material was thicker than he expected. The room quaked again, and Dom fell against the case, which held him up without any difficulty.

Whawardh stopped reciting, and the room was suddenly quiet. Dom looked around and noticed the ministers were all staring at him, their eyes wide. Klaatu was cowering nearby, his paws pressed against his face. “What—?” Dom started. He glanced behind him, wondering if there was something sneaking up on him. There was nothing there. Dom turned back, and out of the corner of his eye, caught a glimpse of a reflection in the glass case.

It wasn’t him.

“What the hell?” He tried to find a better angle, but he couldn’t replicate the reflection. He reached for Klaatu, pulling at the snouter’s arm. “What are you afraid of?” he demanded.

The ministers starting howling.

 

“What’s happening to him?” Elze took several steps toward the Invocator, both of her PDRs raising to point at the robed figure.

“He fightssss,” the Inovcator hissed. “The ssssshadow sssslipssss.” Their words were getting more sibilant, as if the Invocator’s mouth was changing shape. As if its tongue was getting longer.

“Enough,” Elze snapped. She whirled and fired a quick burst from both guns, dropping a pair of beetle-men who had been creeping toward her. “Turn that fucking machine off.”

The Invocator’s jaw danced, and its fingers undulated like worms on spikes. “How?” they asked. Their question became a mocking echo that bounced around the room.

“You just—” Elze stopped. There was no display panel near Dom. The cables and tubes wrapped and supported Dom, but they . . . they didn’t connect to the wall. They didn’t go into the floor. They weren’t routed through an interface in the ceiling. They started and ended with Dom. “How does that even work?”

“Magic,” the Invocator whispered.

 

Dom bolted. He knew, without being consciously aware of his knowing, that something was coming. He was a stupid human, slow to intuit what other species knew more quickly. Like birds flocking before an earthquake, the mole people were responding to vibrations Dom couldn’t feel. But he didn’t have to wait for his dull senses to fully register what was happening. There was still a part of him that remembered being closer to the ground. It was this part of his brain that had triggered a massive dump of adrenaline into his bloodstream. Go! Go! his brain shouted.

And Dom went.

He shoved the hanging curtain aside and dashed out of the audience chamber. The cavernous space outside was empty—the rest of the mole people had already fled—and Dom fully intended to follow their lead. But . . . which way?

He slowed to a fast walk, his heart hammering in his chest. There was a buzzing in his ears, as a crackling spark of electricity surged up his spine and exploded in the back of his brain. Which way? He tried to focus through the mental pyrotechnics going off in his head.

He couldn’t remember which tunnel lead to the Church. That was the only other destination he knew, and without that, he was at a loss as to which tunnel would be best.

“Mooble?” Klaatu ducked past the hanging curtain. His goggles were bright and his motions were jagged. “Where does Mooble go?”

“I don’t know,” Dom snapped. “This isn’t—”

One of the ministers came out of the room behind Klaatu. It was Baentha Baetha, and they were still wide-eyed and howling, their arm raised and pointing accusingly at Dom. Mhomentoe came next, adding their voice to Baentha Baetha’s. Their noise was like the sky over the trenches during a German bombardment: sirens warning the soldiers of incoming ordinance; rockets howling as they eagerly plummeted to their fiery end; men, shrieking and wailing as they tried to hold their shattered bodies together.

The end of the common area went dark, and Dom forgot about the infernal cacophony assaulting his ears. Klaatu tugged at his shirt, urging him to move.

Dom didn’t need any encouragement. He turned, and with Klaatu close behind him, he ran.

 

“I don’t have time for magic,” Elze said. She held down the trigger on the PDR in her right hand, keeping her elbow tight against her body to manage the weapon’s kick as it chattered through a full magazine. The Invocator shrieked and spat and tried to slip between the microseconds, but Elze tracked their attempt. Their tacky-ticky-tack-tack movement danced them into the cell, out of the cell, over to the other side of the room by the computers, and then back again.

The magazine of the PDR emptied, and Elze tossed the useless weapon aside. She had another rifle, but before she could bring it to bear, the Invocator was upon her. Their dingy cloak was spattered with crimson and something darker, and there was an extra hole in their face (one that was leaking profusely), but their injuries didn’t appear to slow them down. Their bony fist connected with the side of Elze’s head, and as she recovered from the blow, the Invocator wrapped their other hand around her throat.

Someone was shouting. She thought it might be Weston. She couldn’t breathe, and caring about that seemed like the more pressing matter to attend to. She tried to fire the second PDR, but nothing happened when she told her trigger finger to do its job. Her hand was attached to her wrist—that was good—but the gun was missing. She made a fist and hit the Invocator in the face. They tried to bite her knuckles, and she retaliated by dragging them toward the cell. The Invocator tightened their grip as Elze slammed them against the bars.

As gunfire rattled behind her, Elze tried to kick one of the Invocator’s legs, but the drape of their robe confounded her efforts, and all she managed to do was upset her balance. The Invocator swept her around, reversing their positions, and it was her turn to be hammered against the metal bars. The Invocator showed their teeth as they wrapped their other hand around Elze’s throat. Her training included solutions to this scenario, but they were predicated on her assailant’s strength being, well, normal, and there was nothing normal about the Invocator, was there?

As bright sparks bloomed at the edges of her vision, she recalled her mission directives. She was an operative of the Office of Temporal Perpetuation. Her job was to ensure the security of W-1. Everything else—including her own life—was secondary. Her relationship with Weston was irrelevant; Weston’s life didn’t matter; nor did Dom’s. They could be sacrificed to complete her mission.

She broke the seal on the last part of her mission directives—the one marked OpSec P-9—and read the termination sequence for her waveframe. Finish the mission, she thought. Get close to the Twins and remove them. “Got you, motherfucker,” she gasped. Beta Mu Tau, she thought, completing the first portion of the sequence that would detonate the payload hidden in her body.

The Invocator brought their face close to Elze’s. One of their eyes was unfocused and it stared over her head. The other one was resolute on her gaze. A low hiss leaked out of their mouth, and the tip of their tongue flickered on the verge of their pale lips.

Elze’s field of vision darkened. Her hands slid off the Invocator’s wrists. Two Four, she thought, fighting to finish the termination sequence. Four Two . . .

*

CHAPTER 25

The halls narrowed around Dom, and the distance between the light globes got farther and farther. He stopped once to catch his breath and wait for Klaatu, whose shorter legs put him at a disadvantage. Behind the snouter, the tunnel was going dark.

“The shadow, Mooble,” Klaatu panted. “Must not let it catch us.”

“I know, I know,” Dom said. He was still out of breath, and his eyes burned. The front edge of the darkness wavered and shivered, and he had a vague sense of things with black talons ripping and tearing at the wall. They had not seen any other mole people, and it had been several turns since there had been any indication of habitation. “Where does this go?” Dom asked, indicating the hall in front of them.

“The Great Course,” Klaatu said. “And the Valley of Bones.”

“Lovely,” Dom sighed.

They continued on, and soon after, the tunnel walls changed. They were in an older area, where the walls had been carved by different tools. The floor got rougher too, and more than once, Dom tripped over a protruding stone. The third time, when he nearly went sprawling, he realized he had to stop. His lungs were burning and his legs felt like they had turned to sausage.

Behind him, the hallway darkened. The shadow had gained on them.

“Come, come,” Klaatu said, tugging his arm. “Cannot stay.”

“I’m out of breath, sport,” Dom said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had to run like this.”

“Run now,” Klaatu said.

With a groan, Dom shoved away from the wall. He followed Klaatu now, his feet slapping heavily against the rough-hewn floor. It was hard to pick them up. A pain flared in his right side, and when he tried to suck in air, his body tensed. I can’t do much more of this, he thought.

Klaatu stop suddenly, and Dom nearly ran him over. “What are you doing?”

Klaatu put a paw on Dom’s chest, which had the effect of quieting him and holding him in place. The snouter waved his other paw at the passage, and Dom realized the light had changed. It was still dim, but there was a bluish cast to it now, and . . . the walls were gone.

“What the hell . . . ?” Dom leaned against Klaatu’s hand, peering out beyond the edge of the tunnel. They were on the edge of an immense open space. A faint blue glow—like the burn of frosted neon—gave him a hint of how big the emptiness was, but he knew his estimate was likely wrong by several factors.

Dom glanced over his shoulder. The shadow surged like water being forced through a pipe, and the froth of its leading edge clawed and tore at the walls and floor. There were shapes within the darkness, but they remained terrifyingly indistinct.

Dom shuddered and turned back to the Great Course. “How do we get down?” he asked, peering at the wall beneath the lip of the tunnel for some sort of ladder or handholds.

“No down,” Klaatu said. “Across.”

“If you think we’re going to fly, I think we’re missing something important. Like wings.” He peeked at the darkness behind them. “Or a rocket pack.”

“We jump” Klaatu said.

“What?”

“Faith leap,” the snouter said. Before Dom could start an argument about the relative merits (or demerits) of faith, Klaatu jumped.

“Are you kidding me—?” Dom looked for Klaatu, but the gloom had already swallowed the snouter.

Behind him, the shadow came, calling his name with its many voices. He heard his father. He heard Captain Gunderson. He heard Kelley, his other father. He heard Giselle, Lelyah, Oni, Beatrice, Cassandra, Emily, Térese—God, he heard them all.

He couldn’t stand on the edge of the precipice any longer. He had to jump. Otherwise, the shadow was going to overwhelm him. He heard Carl Gustav, the Swiss psychoanalyst who had first told him about the darkness that lived in the depths of every human mind.

He had to jump.

He heard Mackerel, sobbing and hiccuping about the state of his trousers, and he wasn’t sure if that wasn’t his voice he heard.

Dom closed his eyes. He heard—

—Elze, calling his name.

He tried to breathe, and found something obstructing his throat. His body tensed, trying to push out the obstruction. Elze called his name again, and without being able to see her, he reached—

Light exploded around him, and he recoiled, whimpering. The blockage in his throat was gone, and he could breathe again. He spent a few moments doing that, reveling in the flood of air that filled his lungs. He blinked—shutters falling on the starlight burning all around him—and gradually, the world came into focus.

He saw her face, bruised and bloodied, and he thought it was the most marvelous sight he had ever seen.

“Dom? Dom? Can you hear me?”

He nodded—or, at least, felt like he had nodded. The rest of his body felt distant, as if it was in another star system. He moved his eyes, looking beyond the radiance face hanging before him. There were walls and lights. Had he been here before?

A bullfrog croaked nearby, a noise that was incongruous with the lights and the dull patina of the walls, and then Dom realized it was his voice he was hearing. He croaked again, his throat working around words and failing to produce much more than the warning brap of a slow-footed amphibian.

“You’re safe. It’s okay. Everything is going to be all right.”

Dom didn’t think that was the case, and his croaking grew more insistent. Elze tried to shush him, and the touch of her fingers against his mouth was electric. He shuddered, and warning lights flared in his head. His point of view shifted abruptly, and his vision focused. The lights solidified and the walls took on regular geometry. His—

He looked at his legs. The loose fabric of his pants were stained. Not with blood—thank goodness for that—but with something that left a decidedly orange stain. “What the hell—?” he managed to croak.

He was sitting on the floor of a prison cell. Around him were a tangle of wires and tubes and elastic bands. It was like—well, he didn’t know what it was like, because he had never seen such a profusion of materials like this before. He glanced around, and saw nothing that provided any more sense to his current situation. The cell was spartan—much like the one he had been in before the bomb had gone off. He looked past Elze (who was still fussing over him, stripping tangles of wire and tubing from his arms and shoulders), and saw a familiar row of computers along the far wall of the laboratory.

It was the same cell, in fact.

He leaned forward, trying to get a better look at the far wall. Wondering—fearing—that it would be unblemished. It was, and Dom felt his heart skip a beat or two. It was all a lie, he thought. Everything that happened. Every since—

His gaze fell on a crumpled form lying near the prison bars. It was covered in a dingy yellow smock, and his heart continued its syncopated arrhythmia when he realized why that color seemed familiar. “That’s—” He gulped back the words, unwilling to say them, on the off chance that uttering the name would be enough to bring that monster back.

Elze didn’t look. “Yes,” she said. “But it’s okay. They’re not going to—”

Dom flailed at her arm, trying to get her attention. “It moved,” he hissed.

“No, no,” she said, stroking the side of his head. “You’re still delusional. You’re still under—”

He got a grip on her sleeve and pulled her closer. “It’s not dead,” he cried.

 

The termination sequence hadn’t worked. It was, like everything she had been told about this mission, a load of horseshit. She completed the mental command—BMT242A—that should have triggered the self-destruct imperative baked into the DNA of her waveform, but nothing had happened. The Manifest Invocator continued to strangle her. Her body—traitor that it was—continued to starve for oxygen. She was out of options. She had failed.

But then, a miracle had occurred. The Invocator, so intent on squeezing her neck until her head popped off, had started to jerk and twitch, like it was fighting off the assault of angry bees. Their grip had loosened, and in the final instant before she had last consciousness, she had slipped free. Her body—still a traitor, but at least it knew enough to keep itself alive—flexed and did everything it could to inhale life-giving air. On her knees and gasping for air—More air! Give me all the air!—she had dimly heard the rattling chatter of a PDR.

Someone was shooting the Invocator.

They collapsed close to Elze, and instinctively, she shied away, but there was no danger. Their eyes—which were both looking in the same direction—saw nothing, and their mouth was slack. A gurgling noise came out of their throat, and one hand feebly tried to spider its way toward her foot. The Invocator shrugged once—more of a hiccup than a cough—and then went still. The fingers of the hand went tacky-ticky-tack—

And then stopped.

Scooting on her butt, Elze moved away from the corpse until she felt something solid behind her. The wall gave her the illusion of safety, and she remained there, filling and refilling her lungs until the tension in her chest and shoulders eased. Only when she was sure the Invocator wasn’t playing dead, did she look around for the shooter.

Weston leaned against the platform, his cloak spattered in blood. He raised a hand gingerly when he saw her looking at him, but he made no effort to come toward her. Around him were the bodies of the remaining beetle-men.

She went to him, and when she got closer, she realized how pale he was. Some—if not all—of the blood on his cloak was his. He waved her off when she tried to examine his injuries. “There’s no time,” he whispered.

“There’s always time—” she started, but he cut her off.

“Get him,” Weston growled. “Get him out of here. I’m sorry. This was all—” A spasm of pain made his knees knock against the platform.

Elze grabbed Weston, trying to support him. Part of her noticed how frail he felt under the cloak. Was he sick—?

“I’ve done you wrong,” Weston sighed. “I’ve done a lot of things wrong. I thought . . .”

“You don’t have to explain,” Elze said.

He found a smile and tried it on, but all Elze could think was his expression was the grim countenance of a man who knew how much of a joke existence truly was. “You don’t want to know,” he said. “You can’t know because . . .” His attention faltered and his gaze became fixed on a spot on the far wall.

“Weston!” Elze grabbed his shoulder, feeling bone beneath the cloak. How could he be this thin? she wondered.

He came back, slowly tracking to her face, and for a moment, there was a glimmer of hope in his eyes. “He is the one who has been lost,” he said. “But you found him.”

“Who? Dom? I didn’t find him. I was told where to go.”

Another spasm rippled across his face, but this one was born of confusion and not pain. “Who told you?” he asked.

“My mission handler. It wasn’t you. I had Returned, into this body. The Architects gave me a new mission. I had a new handler. She—”

“She?” Weston laughed. “She?” It cost him, this laugh. Elze could see how much pain he was in, but she was frozen in shock by the amusement he had found in her words. It passed, and all that remained was the pain. Weston lurched against her, grabbing her arm and hanging on. “Remember her face,” he gasped. “Remember it well, and when you see it again, you’ll understand.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Lapis,” he whispered. “Lapis Twelve. Very clever, Elzebet. You’ve done it, haven’t you? You figured out the Ouroborean—I always knew—”

This time, when he stared, there was nothing behind that stare but an awful emptiness.

“Weston!”

He sagged, his muscles no longer able to hold him, and Elze lowered gently to the floor. He was still alive, but he wasn’t seeing this world anymore. She leaned him against the platform, fighting back a flood of tears that she hadn’t realized were waiting. She touched his face lightly, closing his mouth and stroking his gaunt cheek. He seemed even thinner than he had a few minutes ago, as if time was being sucked out of his body. As if a debt is be called due, she thought. She didn’t know the source of the thought, but felt—somehow—that it was true.

There was nothing she could do for him. Weston was dying. In fact—objectively speaking—he was already dead.

She rested on her knees for a moment, her head bowed. She couldn’t decide what she was supposed to feel. Anger? Sorrow? Resentment? Frustration? Confusion? All of these emotions, all at once? Yes, she thought. All of them. That felt right.

“Good-bye, Weston,” she said quietly. “I know you didn’t love me, but—” She didn’t finish. Her feelings were too complicated, and there wasn’t enough time.

She got to her feet and went to save Dom from the oubliette of his own imagination.

&bnsp;

“The what?”

Elze fired another burst from a PDR into the corpse of the Invocator. The body twitched—in response to the rounds and not of its own volition, Dom noted. Simple rules of physics in action. Nothing supernatural. Nothing like what he had seen a few moments before.

“The oubliette of your own imagination.”

“Where did you come up with that?”

Elze nudged the bloody body of the Invocator with her foot, still not convinced she had shot it enough. “I read about it in a fashion magazine,” she said.

“Really?”

She came over to him. Her eyes were bright and there was a tension in her face that was both alluring and frightening. “Are you done with all that yet?” she asked, referring the last bit of cabling that Dom had been extricating himself from.

When the Invocator had first started to reanimate, she had scrambled out of the cell and retrieved one of the PDRs that were no longer being used by the beetle-men. She had emptied that weapon’s magazine into the twitching body—and yes, that twitching was not the normal behavior of dead tissue, thank you very much—and then picked up a second rifle, in case further application of firepower was necessary.

Dom had been left to fend for himself, and at first, he had tangled himself further in the maze of cables and coils and wires that had suspended him. It was like a knot of string that had been batted about by three kittens for a few hours, then thrown into the street where a dozen birds had nearly strangled themselves trying to extricate threads from it for their nests, and then whipped up by a breeze that had turned into a gale-force wind. This knot—abused by kitten paws, bird talons, and a primal force of nature—was a byzantine convolution of Gordian proportions. And yes, he had lamented the lack of a sharp edge to shear through much of the plastic sheathing and flexible tubing.

It had leaked on him too. More of that orange liquid which smelled like rotting fruit, warming cedar chips, and—God help him—the nape of some woman’s neck. He felt like he should be able to remember her name, but there were holes in his memory now. Empty spaces he couldn’t enter. Gaps that he shouldn’t even be aware of.

The Great Course, he thought, trying to remember what that was and why it was important. And the Valley of Bones. He felt like he had dropped something.

Elze ripped away the last of the tangle around his ankles. “Come on,” she said. “There’s no time to daydream.”

He looked at her sharply, stung by her words. “Time,” he muttered. “Who are you to—”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m not in the mood,” she said.

Dom struggled to his feet, where he swayed for a minute. All the blood in his body was sloshing in a different direction, and he was light-headed, disoriented, and thirsty. He focused on an unmoving object.

“Are you sure they—it—whatever—is dead?” he asked, staring at the corpse of the Invocator.

“No,” Elze said. “And I’m going to run out of ammunition sooner than later. So, let’s not be here when it tries again, okay?”

Dom nodded. “Okay,” he said. He staggered out of the cell and came to a stop when he saw the other bodies. “Those are a lot of . . .”

“I didn’t kill them,” Elze said, bustling past him. “Well, not all of them.” She picked up another PDR and checked its magazine.

Someone moved, and Dom made an involuntary noise. Elze whirled, having mistaken Dom’s noise as an alarm about the Invocator’s resurrection, but Dom pointed her in the right direction. One of the—Dom blinked and looked again.

Belette, he thought, and then he corrected himself. Weston. But even then, he wasn’t sure. The figure was too small, too old to be the gangster—no, Elze’s handler, no, wait. Dom couldn’t keep it all straight in his head.

Elze rushed toward the tiny figure almost lost in the voluminous folds of the OTP cloak. She knelt and cradled the old man’s head with her hands. The figure stirred again at her touch, and Dom felt a twinge in his chest. Was that jealousy? Where had that come from?

He moved closer, wanting to hear what they were saying. Feeling guilty about eavesdropping. Doing it anyway.

“Weston,” she whispered, trying to call the old man back from the brink of the infinite abyss. “Can you hear me?”

The old man’s eyelids fluttered. His skin was so pale, so translucent. Had he aged in the last few seconds? The old man finally managed to hold his eyelids up, and his eyes were white with cataracts. “Elze.” His voice was a tiny whisper of a cricket brushing against a blade of grass. “You are still here . . .”

“Of course I am,” she said.

“The child,” Weston whispered. “Did you rescue my boy?”

Elze looked over at Dom, who shook his head. He had no idea what Weston or Belette or whatever the fuck his name was was talking about.

Though, secretly, he did, and that frightened him, and he didn’t want to deal with that. Not now. Not ever, really. But definitely not now.

“I did,” Elze said. “He’s safe.”

Weston’s hand darted out from under the clock. He gripped Elze’s arm like a vise. “He’s not safe. No one is.” His voice was stronger and louder. “You have to undo the loop,” he said. “He must break the last seal.”

Dom heard a noise, and at first he thought it was the Invocator substantiating again, but then he realized it was coming from outside the lab. Out in the hall. When he heard it again, he knew what it was. “We’ve got company,” he said.

Without looking away from Weston, Elze scooped up the PDR at her feet and tossed it to Dom. Dom, startled by the flying rifle, almost didn't catch it, but he got his hands up in time. He fumbled the rifle for a moment, managing to not shoot himself as he got the weapon pointed in the right direction. When a beetle-man poked his head into the lab, Dom was ready for him. 

He missed, but at the very least, the beetle-man got the hint.

Dom crouched near Elze, taking advantage of the modest bit of shelter afforded by the platform. He glanced at Elze and the old man, checking to see if they were still communing. The old man’s eyes were still open, but he still wasn’t seeing anything but the milky expanse of his cataracts.

Another beetle-man checked on them, and when Dom popped up to shoot him, this one fired back. Dom ducked before he could get a shot off, and the room echoed with ricochets for a minute.

Elze gave him a look.

“It’s the recoil,” he said. “Plus, you know, my vision still isn’t—”

With a sigh, she took the gun from him, and when the beetle-men, galvanized by Dom’s inability to shoot straight, sent a trio into the room, she was ready. She dropped all three, but the effort burned through the magazine. “I’m out,” she said. “Find me another one.”

Dom didn’t hear her. The old man had sensed his presence and his clawed hand had reached out and found Dom. “The seal,” the old man whispered. “You have to break the seal.”

“I’m not—” Dom tried to extricate himself from the dying man’s grip.

“You are the key,” the old man insisted. “You are the son and the light.”

“I’m not your son,” Dom snapped. He was remembering a dream he hadn’t had—or had it been a different life? In a different time (relatively speaking)? He was remembering something that hadn’t happened.

Elze, having found another magazine, was firing her rifle again. The beetle-men were firing back. All the gunfire was noisy, and Dom saw the old man’s lips move, but he didn’t hear what was said. He bent forward, putting his ear close. “What did you say?” he shouted.

The old man’s grip was fierce. “Höltzbrïn,” he whispered. “The castle in the sky.”

And then Dom heard something else. Something that he shouldn’t have been able to hear over all the noise. Something that sounded deep within his skull. A tapping noise that he couldn’t unhear.

Tacky-ticky-tack-tack.

The body by the cell was moving again. As Dom watched, bones knitted and flesh healed. The cloak filled out. A head lifted, and a pair of black eyes stared at him with glittering malice. “Fire,” the Egregore crooned. “I am the breath and the death.”

*

CHAPTER 26

“Are you sure this is the right way?” Elze asked for—hang on, Dom had been keeping track—the eighth time. 

“No,” Dom said. He had been alternating between a terse ‘yes’ and passive-aggressive silence (which is harder to do than you think), and that hadn’t been getting the point across as well as he would have liked. Though, it was dark and they were been chased by God knows how many beetle-men, so it’s altogether likely that Elze was not paying that close attention to the terse line he lips made when he bit back his answer. 

Regardless, Dom thought he’d try honestly, because why not? It’s not like things could get worse.

It might be dangerous to put that out there, he thought, suddenly reconsidering his decision. But it was too late: the word was out of his mouth. Elze heard it, and—sure enough—here came her reaction. 

“What the fuck?” 

Dom stopped, held up his hands, and got ready to take the brunt of Elze’s ire. In some ways, he was doing them both a favor. She had been angry awhile now; their ammunition situation was dire (read less than half a magazine); and there were more beetle-men on their trail than either had bothered to count (though, it wasn’t more than sixty). He could tell she needed an outlet. 

“We can’t keep running around in the dark like this,” Elze snapped. “I thought you had a plan.” 

Dom glanced furtively at the ghostly figure of Klaatu, who waved for them to hurry. “I’m following a hunch,” he said, looking away from the apparition. 

“A hunch?” Elze massaged her forehead. 

“Well—” Dom fidgeted. “Maybe it’s a little more than that.” He knew he should tell her, but what was he supposed to say? Actually, we’re following a ghost that I met in that oubliette where I was supposedly imagining everything. He’s a mole person named Klaatu and—

There were many ways the conversation could do downhill from there. And yet, it was hard to dispute that Klaatu had saved them in the lab. 

They had been trapped in the room by beetle-men who were massing in the hall outside the lab. Elze had shot the Manifest Invocator many times, and while that had been satisfying for a few minutes, it appeared to have only allowed the Absolute Egregore to manifest. 

Elze had said something about how the Invocator and Egregore couldn’t be stopped unless both were killed simultaneously, and Dom had posed the obvious question of how that was possible if only one was extant at any given point in time. She had angrily replied that she didn’t know; she was merely telling him what Weston had told her. Dom had stopped short of mentioning Weston’s dismal record when it came to the truth because he suspected it would restart the same argument they’d been having since they escaped the lab. 

Anyway, the dire situation had been beetle-men with guns on the one hand and a monster who breathed fire on the other. And then, Dom had seen Klaatu, at the back of the lab, where—in his oubliette fantasy—an explosion had ripped a hole in the wall. The snouter had been trying to get his attention, and when Dom finally acknowledged the apparition, Klaatu pointed at the wall behind the computers. “Make boom,” the snouter said, his mechanical voice as clear as if he was standing next to Dom. “Boom boom.” 

And when a beetle-man had thrown an incendiary into the room, Dom had snatched it up and hurled it toward the phantom of his mole friend. Elze had thought he meant to throw it at the Egregore—whose legs had not yet reconstructed enough to allow them to stand upright—but his aim had been farther back. The incendiary had fallen short, but it bounced before it blew. The blast was smaller than the one he had dreamed (had it been a dream?), but when the smoke cleared, there had been a hole in the wall. Not a large hole, but one big enough for a determined person to squeeze themselves through. 

Determination was not something Elze lacked. She had even taken the time to kick the Egregore in the face as they had made for the back of the room. 

Once through the hole, they found themselves in a ragged passage that predated the complex, and for awhile, there had been only one direction to go. When they reached the first intersection, Elze asked Dom which passage was better, and Dom—who had been hoping the appearance of Klaatu had been a one-time thing—found himself caught between elation and despair when the snouter had hooted at them from the righthand passage. “This way, Mooble,” Klaatu had called. “Follow me.” 

And so Dom had. Each time they came to an intersection, the snouter was waiting for them. Each time, Dom followed the ghost, even though doing so further cemented the fear that he had lost his mind. 

“Look,” Dom said, trying to figure out how to broach the topic of his insanity without outright saying as much. “That thing I was in—the oubliette—when was I put in it?” 

“I—I don’t know,” Elze said. She kept looking at their back trail. Dom knew she was worried about how close the beetle-men and the Egregore might be. “Sometime after . . .” She flapped a hand as she trailed off, revealing her own uncertainty about what had happened. 

“Where do our memories diverge?” Dom approached the issue from a different direction. “We went through that door in Paris and came to the declination, right? We both remember that. We found that—that courier in the sand. The one who had died.” 

“Yes,” Elze said. “He was all desiccated, like he had been there for many years. But . . . maybe it was like what happened to Weston.”

“Maybe it was,” Dom said. “And after that, the skyboat showed up. And the flying beetle-men shot me with that web thing, right? That was the first time we were separated. I lost consciousness, and when I woke up, I was in that cell on the skyboat.” 

“They didn’t wrap me up,” Elze said. “I surrendered and they took me captive. I was put in room of my own.” 

“Did you sleep?” 

“No. We were only in the air for . . . I don’t know . . . less than a hour, I think.”

“And then we arrived at this secret base under the Eiffel Tower. You and I were brought to a room where we met Weston.” Dom frowned. “I still don’t understand how he was also Belette. Why was he having me steal those artifacts? I mean, it explains why he was never particularly concerned with how I got them, but . . .”

“It’s not important,” Elze said absently. 

Dom stared at her. They had scavenged lightweight lightsticks from two of the PDRs. The beams were bright, and they had learned how to not shine them in each other’s eyes, but everything outside the narrow cones of light produced by the lights was heavily shadowed. It didn’t matter for much of the tunnel system they were running through—ragged walls, carved by hand-crafted tools, were much the same after awhile—but for surreptitiously checking out what your companion was thinking, they weren’t very useful. 

Elze, being both highly agitated and extremely paranoid, knew what Dom was doing with his light. She waved her beam across his face, telling him to knock it off, and he took the hint. “I think he’s the Twins,” she said. “Well, one of them, at least. And—fuck—he, they, may not be the only ones.” 

“The Invocator and the Egregore,” Dom said. 

“Yeah, those two.” Elze let out her breath in a rush. “There’s a lot no one told me. Which, usually, is fine. I don’t need to know. It’s not my job to understand the intricacies of what the Architects are trying to do with the waves. I go where they tell me. I solve the problems they point me at. I report back, and they either pat me on the head and say, ‘Good job, Elzebet,’ or they make marks in a report and send me off again. But this time—this time was a clusterfuck.” 

“Oh, so it’s not just me.” 

“No, it’s not just you. But all of this . . . this is way beyond . . .” 

Dom moved his light toward the passage ahead of them. The beam of light passed through Klaatu, who didn’t notice. “I’ll say,” he said. 

“Regardless, yes, we met Weston in the conference room,” Elze said. “I remember that. And then—then we met the Invocator, and then the Egregore.” 

“That’s when someone smacked me on the head,” Dom said. “That was the second point where I lost time.” 

Elze shook her head. “But I was there. I saw them smack you. I watched them carry you out of the conference room. We were taken to the lab and put in separate cells. I was conscious the whole time. We were waiting for someone to show up.” Her face tightened as she recalled the sequence of events. “And then someone attacked the lab.” 

“You remember that?” Dom 

“Yeah. There was some kind of raid. Later, Weston told me it was some splinter group, descendants of the Templars or something. They had gone underground after the purge in . . . whenever that was—"

"1314," Dom said automatically, and when Elze stared at him, he shrugged. "You read fashion magazines, I read Conspiracies of Our Times. It was a quarterly publication."

She shook her head. "Apparently, this version of the Templars formed a whole society of transportation engineers and tunnel makers and—” 

“Wow. Did you see one?" 

“These tunnel Templars? Yeah, I saw them. Well, one of them, I think. He was dead. I grabbed a—some kind of insignia and . . .” She plucked at her shirt. “Well, I had it. But after . . . after I shot a couple of guards, I was trying to clear the room so I could get you out of your cell, but then the Egregore did this thing where he peeled back his face and—” 

“He did what?” 

Elze waved away Dom’s incredulity. “There was a lot of fire,” she said. “And I don’t remember anything after that. I woke up in a different cell, in a different room. When I escaped from that cell, I found my way back to the lab. That’s where I found you . . . all wound up in that apparatus.”  

“So, you didn’t see me escape from my cell and go through the wall?” 

Elze shook her head. “No, I thought you were in the cell next to mine. The door was shut and there was no time to figure out how to get the door open, and then, you know . . .” She pantomimed pulling the top of her skull off and hosing everything down with fire. Or, at least, Dom imagined that’s what she was miming. He couldn’t fathom what else she could be doing. 

“You don’t remember talking to me in the lab?” Dom asked. 

“We didn’t talk. I didn’t even know if you were conscious.” 

“That’s when it happened,” Dom said. His hands moved back and forth, like he was switching wine glasses or confusing a rube at a three card monte game. “That’s the break. After the meeting, my memories are different than yours. When I got put in that cell, that’s when we were separated. I never woke up—at least, not in your reality.”

“You said we talked.” 

“Yeah, you were in the cell next to mine. We talked about what had happened, and I asked you—” Dom tried to dredge up the conversation he had had with Elze, and he wasn’t surprised it was difficult to remember. “You told me some stuff about your woke bands—” 

“WOC bands,” Elze said. 

“Whatever they're called. The arm bands. You said they needed some kind of powder to run, and I said something about playing a chemist at costume parties, and you said something about . . . What was his name? Oh, yes. Saint Germain. You said he was a fake, and I said that he wasn’t. And then . . . “ The expression on Elze’s face caused Dom to trail off.  “What?” 

“Nothing,” she said hastily. 

Dom was pretty sure it wasn’t ‘nothing,’ but he was also sure it didn’t have anything to do with their current situation. Leave it alone, he thought, even though part of him wanted to know. That part of him that had been giving him those twinges at awkward times with her. 

“That’s—that’s when the bomb went off, and everything got crazy,” Dom said, keeping to the story at hand. “One of the . . . the snouters—the mole people—” 

“The what?”

It was Dom’s turn to pantomime. “They wear some kind of gas mask, and it has this long snout that tucks down into some apparatus on their chests. And goggles. They wore googles too. I thought of them as ‘snouters,’ even though I later found out they were moles.” 

“Moles?” 

“Yeah, there was an entire community of them, living in these tunnels. I met their high priest, or head mole, or whatever he was. His name was . . . What was it . . . Akamee? No, Ackadeemee Whawardh. That’s right. Ackadeemee Whawardh, and—” Dom caught Elze making faces again. “What?” 

“Nothing,” she said. “Go ahead.” 

“What did I say?” He didn't want to let this one go. It was starting to become a habit of letting her off the hook. 

“Just tell your story.” 

“So, I, uh, we were in this audience chamber and there were all these tapestries, like the sort you see in churches. Only in church, it’s all stained glass. Oh, and before that, I visited this church. High Romanesque, Early Gothic. It’s not a church in Paris, but it’s from that era, you know? And that’s where I met this guy who said he was my dad, even though he wasn’t—but he kinda was. Anyway—” Dom ran out of breath. 

Elze looked at him, a bemused quirk to her lips. Dom stared back. “You think—” he started. 

“No, it’s fine.” 

“It’s all part of that imagination chamber thing I was in. It was all a hallucination, or a dream, or something.” 

“I don’t know what it was,” she said. “It was your experience.” 

“But you think it’s crazy.” 

“I know better to say that.” 

“What about the high priest?” 

“What about him?

“You made a face when I said his name. Ackadeemee Whawardh.” 

“It’s nothing. It’s just a name.” 

“What about Baenta Baetha? Or Mhomentoe? Or Vesheen Ahwah? What about—stop laughing!” 

Elze couldn’t hold it in any longer, and Dom fumed as her giggles ran their choice. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s just—really?” 

“What?” 

“Virgin Airways?”

“No, Versheen Ahwah.” 

“You sound like a cartoon character,” Elze said. She repeated the words she had said, which Dom had to admit sounded a little like “Versheen Ahwah.” When she repeated her version of the words in a variety of accents, his confidence began to ebb. 

“And . . . Ackademee . . .?” 

“Academy Award,” Elze said. “You know, Hollywood? California?” 

Dom felt a flush rise in his cheeks. He turned toward Klaatu, who was patiently waiting for them to get over all their talking. “What about him?” Dom said. 

“Who?” Elze asked, a flicker of concern in her eyes. 

“The one who saved me. The one who is showing us the way right now. What about Klaatu?” 

Elze’s mouth dropped open. She closed it quickly, but Dom had seen it. His face got even warmer. 

“Klaatu?” Elze asked. “Like, ‘Klaatu barada nikto’?” 

In the passage, Klaatu stiffened. He slapped a paw against his chest, and Dom heard him repeat the phrase with a measure of pride. 

Elze caught him looking and she waved her light toward the empty tunnel. “You see him, don’t you?” she said, finally catching on to Dom’s errant behavior. “He’s—what?—a ghost?” 

“Something like that,” Dom muttered. “And he’s—” He sighed and mimic Klaatu’s gesture. “He did this when you said . . . whatever you said.” 

“‘Klaatu barada nikto.’” 

Klaatu echoed the phrase, slapping his chest again. 

“Yeah, that,” Dom said. “It’s like it’s some sort of . . . I don’t know . . . honor thing. Like ‘I am Klaatu,’ I guess.” 

“Oh God,” Elze groaned. “I’m caught in a mashup of Spartacus and The Day the Earth Stood Still.” 

“What?” 

The Day the Earth Stood Still. It’s a movie about a space alien and his killer robot. They come to Earth to warn everyone that if they don’t do better, they’re going to destroy the world. Of course, they think the guy is insane, and they don’t believe him. The military gets involved, and the giant robot is about to burn everything when someone says that phrase and turns it off. Or something like that. It’s been—it’s been awhile since I’ve seen it.” 

“Okay,” Dom said slowly. “And Spartacus?” 

“It’s not important,” Elze said. “It’s just—look, the names of these guys. These iconic film references. It’s just your subconscious filling in weird abstractions in your dream, so they make sense and—” 

“But I don’t know what these things are,” Dom said. “I’ve never seen this movie—either of them, actually—and okay, I know about the Academy Awards, but Versheen—I mean, Virgin Airways? What is that? It sounds like some kind of airplane industry group, but it’s a reference to something in the future.” He paused and played his light around them. “Well, relatively speaking. I mean, it’s in the past of this world, but it’s part of a future I don’t know, right?”

 “I—I think it was formed in the later part of the twentieth century,” Elze said. 

“And the giant robot movie? When did that come out?” 

“I don’t know,” Elze admitted. “It’s black and white. Well, the original was. I think there was a remake . . .” 

“Okay, how about Spartacus. When did that come out?"

“During the 1960’s, I think. So?” 

“These are things you know, but they aren’t things I know. So how can I be pulling them from my subconscious?” 

Elze threw up her hands. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s the collective unconsciousness or something. The point is: there are elements of your experience that are coded from the collective experience of humanity and—” 

“But not all of it.”

“—what?”

“I can’t be pulling things from the entirety of human experience,” Dom said. “Because that’s arguing that time doesn’t exist.” 

“Time does exist. What are you talking about?” 

“I can’t be dreaming of things that haven’t become part of the human experience until they actually do. Versheen Ahwah, for instance. You say it’s ‘Virgin Airways,’ but maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe ‘Virgin Airways’ is a misreading of ‘Versheen Ahwah.’” 

“But ‘Versheen Ahwah’ is the name of a . . . A mole person you met in a dream.” Elze gesticulated wildly at the tunnel around them. “We're stuck in a declination that is so far in the future that we don’t even know what year it is. There’s no way you can argue that ‘Versheen Ahwah’ is a priori.” 

“Oh, so you’re going to use Kant on me now?” 

“I’m going to pistol whip you in a minute, is what I’m going to do.” 

“Oh, and what? You think Klaatu is going to talk with you while I'm down with head trauma?” 

“There’s no one to talk to! It’s just you and me and who the fuck knows how many of that Cohort coming after us.” 

“Who?”

“It doesn’t matter! We’re wasting time arguing over this. We have to go.” 

“Go where?”

“I don’t know,” she yelled. “But we can’t stay here and fight over . . . over theoretical temporality like this.” 

Elze turned away from Dom, and he stood still and stared at the ground. They had reached an impasse, and it was probably wise to take a break for a moment. But not for too long because Elze was right: there were men coming after them. Dom took a few deep breaths—in, out, in out—and the rhythm slowly washed away the anger bubbling in his chest. He hoped Elze was doing the same, and he was tempted to check and see if she was, but he wasn't brave enough and looked at Klaatu instead. 

The snouter stood in the middle of the tunnel, paws hanging loosely at his side. He looked dejected, and Dom felt a burst of pity and embarrassment for what he had said in the last few minutes. “I’m, I’m sorry,” he said. 

“What?” Elze half-turned toward him. 

“I was—I was apologizing to”—Dom quickly redirected his statement—“I’m sorry, Elze. I haven’t been a good team player.” 

A hint of a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. “We’re not a team,” she said. “I mean, I work alone, and you, you are—you know what? Never mind. Yeah, sure, we’re a team, and yeah, you haven’t been doing your part.” She put her hand to her face. “Fuck. I’m sorry. That didn’t come out right. I meant . . .” 

“Don’t worry about it,” Dom said. “I get it. It’s—” He gestured toward Klaatu. “We made him sad,” he said. 

“Who?” Before he could reply, Elze’s face hardened again. “Are you fucking kidding me?” 

Klaatu started tapping his chest, and his speaker buzzed with a single word, repeated over and over again. 

Dom held up a hand, indicating he wasn’t going to let Elze wind up again. He peered more closely at Klaatu and what the snouter was tapping on his chest. It was a mark that had been scored into his chestplate. “That insignia you took from the other guy,” he said. “Do you remember what it was?” 

“The what? The insignia?” Elze thought for a second. “Yeah. Yeah, I do. It was a—” 

Dom cut her off. “It was a key, wasn’t it?” 

Elze’s mouth hung open for a second and then she snapped it shut. 

“How would I know that?” Dom asked. “Unless Klaatu—who is right there, waiting for us to follow him—told me. In fact, he’s wearing one. It’s just like the one you had . . .” 

Elze shook her head. “God damn it,” she said quietly.  

There was no more time for discussion after that. A yellow glow started in the tunnel behind them, and they heard the noise of many booted feet slapping against the rough stone of the passage. Elze, resigned to the presence of Dom’s active imagination, wearily waved a hand toward the passage ahead of them. Dom thought once more about apologizing, but realized he wasn’t entirely sure what he would be apologizing for, and so he opted to follow Klaatu instead. 

Behind them, lions roared, and the yellow light grew brighter. 

*

CHAPTER 27

Elze slowed to a stop when she felt a change in the air. She waved her light around, and saw nothing to indicate the source of this change. Frowning, she flicked her light off, and waited a few moments for her eyes to adjust to the darkness of the tunnel.

Ahead, Dom’s light bounced to a stop as he realized she wasn’t keeping up with him. Behind her, the tunnel was pitch black. The Egregore and the beetle-men were back there somewhere. She and Dom had passed through nearly a half dozen intersections in the last hour. Hopefully, all those choices would slow their pursuers down.

Dom’s light crept back to her. “What is it?” he asked.

“There’s something . . . something’s different,” she said.

Dom looked ahead, his head cocked to the side as if he was listening to someone. “He says we’re getting close,” Dom said.

“Close to what?” Elze asked, ignoring the other question on her mind. For the time being, she had decided to not argue with Dom about his imaginary friend. If his mole pal gets us out of here, then there’s no reason to make a big deal about it, she thought.

“He calls it the ‘Valley of Bones,’ but I don’t think that is the right word.” Dom pointed at his chest. “He’s got this unit that is sort of like a radio receiver, except when you turn the dial, it speaks in different languages.”

“A translator,” Elze said. “He’s got a mechanical translator.”

“I guess so. I’ve never seen anything like it. I suppose you have those in the future.”

Elze shrugged. “We have immersion therapies.”

“What?”

“It’s science stuff.”

Dom flicked his light around Elze’s legs. “I apologized earlier,” he said. “You don’t need to be angry at me.”

“I’m not angry at you.”

“It sort of feels like it.”

“Because I’m not giving you a very technical explanation of why I can speak eight languages?”

“Eight? Wow.”

“I don’t know how it works. It was part of my early indoctrination. I took a lot of hot bathes in specialized tubs. Some times there were strangely colored fluids. Some times it hurt. Most of the time it didn't. When I was done, I knew things. 

“You knew things.”

“Yes. It’s how we prepare for certain missions. It’s takes less time that way.”

“Oh, there’s another way?”

“Yes,” Elze said. “You go to school for four to six years in some other era, and then return a half hour after you left.”

“Oh, that way.”

“It’s more efficient the other way.”

“Oh, sure. Sure.”

“But I don’t know how it works. I just—”

“You just take a bath and learn astrophysics or something.”

“Or something.”

“Right. Anyway, Klaatu says we’re near the Valley of Bones, but I’m not sure that it is what we think it is.”

“It’s not a graveyard?”

“Oh, it’s definitely a graveyard.” Dom said. “I just hope it’s not an actual valley because, well, that’s a lot of bones.”

“An ossuary,” Elze said. Something tickled at the back of her skull.

Dom nodded. “Paris is famous for them,” he said. “There’s an old joke that if you dig a hole in Paris, you’ll either find a Metro line or someone’s grandmother. It’s all tunnels—half of which hold dead people, and the other half moves the living all over the place.”

“Weston said something about an ossuary,” Elze said, remembering where she had heard the word recently. “The—what was it?—yes, the Invocator. The Invocator was doing something in the ossuary.”

“What?”

Elze shook her head. “Weston didn’t know.”

Dom sighed. “Well, I’ll guess we’ll have to find out.”

“Find out what?”

“If the Invocator found the library. If they did, then . . . then they know where we are going.”

They both looked back at the way they had come. The tunnel remained dark, no matter how much they wished it otherwise.

“So, we haven’t lost them,” Elze said finally.

“No, we probably haven’t,” Dom said.

“Well, that’s disappointing.”

Dom laughed, and Elze let out a tiny gasp at the sound. It was such an incongruous noise that, for an instant, it reminded her of sunlight. She hadn’t realized how much she missed the sun’s caress on her face.

“Come on,” Dom said. “Maybe we’ll get lucky.”

Elze watched his light bob down the tunnel. Lucky? she thought. How can he remain so optimistic? She wondered.

 

If Elze could see inside Dom’s head, she might have revised her opinion. Dom did not like tunnels—no surprise there, given his experiences during World War I—and he and Elze had been underground too long for his liking. Only worms and moles like being in the dirt this long, he thought. His breathing was rapid and shallow, and he was starting to see spots in the corners of his eyes. Spots that weren’t there because of his flashlight.

Klaatu was starting to fade too. He wasn’t sure why. No more than he knew why the snouter had manifested in the first place. Part of his brain was still twisting around the existence of the ghostly figure. If he had imagined everything, then how could the snouter exist now? Unless, of course, he was still imagining things, but that meant he was following a hallucination. Not the best tunnel guide, he thought. But what other choice did he have? There were too many intersections, too many side-tunnels that looked like all the rest.

In all likelihood, they were, in fact, totally lost. Dom wouldn’t have been surprised if they staggered right back to where they had started. It would have been a fitting end to their adventure. Frantically racing around like everything mattered, and then discovering none of their actions made any difference.

Elze was right about one thing though: the air was different. He hadn’t consciously noticed it until she had said something, but now he was aware of the subtle change. It was drier, for one (if that was possible, his lungs gasped), and there was a hint of movement. Half the time, he wasn’t sure he felt it, and the other half, it was nothing more than the touch of an imaginary feather on his eyelashes.

It had to be there. Otherwise . . .

Ahead, Klaatu gestured for him to hurry. Doggedly, Dom pressed on, the beam of his light making a round hole through the mole person’s chest.

His beam passed over something that moved, and he came to an abrupt halt. His chest heaving, Dom slowly played his light back across the wall. There. It hadn’t been movement. There had been something in the wall. Something that wasn’t dirt or rock.

He felt Elze come up behind him. “What is it?” she whispered.

Dom held his light steady.

The lower portion of a human skull leered at them from the wall.

“That’s not something you see every day,” Dom said, trying to keep his voice calm. He took a few steps, running his light slowly along the wall. The round spot of light revealed other bones trapped in the packed sediment. Femurs. A hand. Another skull. The frequency of human remains increased, until the dirt was like mortar between stacks of bones.

“We’ve found it,” Dom said. “The Valley of Bones.”

Elze played her light up and down the tunnel. “I don’t see any markers,” she said.

“I doubt there are any,” Dom replied.

“So . . . I don’t want to be ungrateful or anything”—Elze’s light flicked back and forth—“but how does this help?”

“What do you mean?”

“So the walls are bones now, instead of dirt,” she said. “We’re still underground. We’re still trying to get away from them.”

“Yes, but now I know where we are.”

“What?”

“We’re in Paris.”

Elze stared at him, and he wasn’t sure if she was impressed or positive he had completely lost his mind. I should probably tip that toward the former, he thought.

“Look, where did we land? Behind the Eiffel Tower, right? That’s on the lefthand side of the river—the Seine. It’s in the 7th Arrondissement. Next to it is the 15th, and the border between the two is where the Five runs.”

“The what?”

“Line number five,” Dom said. “Of the metro. That line goes from Gare du Nord to L’Étoile.” He made a sloppy loop with his hand. “It runs sort of like that.”

“Okay,” Elze said. The light hadn’t changed in her eyes.

“It ends at Place de l’Étoile,” Dom said.

Elze continued to nod without much enthusiasm.

“Look, it’s where the Arc de Triomphe is located. Line 1 intersects there too. Line 1 runs under the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, which points you right down the righthand side of the Seine.”

“I still don’t understand why this relevant.”

“Look, from Champs-Élysées, you can get on the Pont de la Concorde, which takes to the Left Bank. There, you follow the river along the Quai Voltaire. You pass the Musée d’Orsay, and eventually reach La République, which is a statue made by a nice fellow named Jean-François Soitoux.” Dom tried to sketch in the dirt floor of the tunnel with his foot, but he gave up after a few seconds. It was just a crazy set of lines and arcs. “Anyway, you turn there, onto Rue Bonaparte, and head south. You’ll pass that coffee shop we had breakfast at the other day (relatively speaking), and then halfway down the next block will be—”

“—your apartment,” Elze finished for him, finally catching up with his perambulation of Paris.

“Exactly.”

Elze wobbled her light around the tunnel. “There aren’t any markers,” she repeated. “How do you know where you are?”

“When Klaatu and I were running from the shadow”—Dom waved away Elze’s raised eyebrow—“we came to a giant open space. A big cavern. He called the Great Course, and he said the Valley of Bones was just on the other side. He jumped, and I was about to follow him when you woke me up. I thought the Great Course was the Seine, but that’s not it. Not now. The Valley of Bones is the riverbed. What else would you use it for once the river dried up?”

“What else?” Elze said absently. “And the Great Course?”

“It’s all sacred geometry,” Dom said. “Psychogeography.”

“Of course it is,” Elze said.

Dom reached for her hand. “Come on,” he said. “Let me show you.” She resisted for a second, but allowed herself to be pulled along.

Dom, excited about what lay ahead, didn’t notice that Klaatu wasn’t following them. The snouter stayed where he was, and he watched the dancing lights held by the pair until they disappeared around a bend in the tunnel. “Motainee,” he said quietly, even though no one but Dom would hear him. Then he faded into the eternal blackness of the underground.

Ten minutes later, a thunder of beetle-men stampeded through the tunnel, their booted feet stamping out the scuffled map Dom had tried to draw. Following close behind was a fiery apparition, belching smoke and tongues of angry flame.

 

Dom got turned around twice. The first time, he didn’t admit to screwing up, but when they came across their footprints a second time, he ducked his head and owned up to his mistake. Elze, not having any better plan, merely smiled and told him it was okay. It wasn’t, though. She had, on several occasions now, noticed a lightening of the darkness behind them. Their pursuers were closing the gap.

“This one,” Dom said as they reached another intersection. The walls were entirely made of stacked skeletons now, cemented in place by centuries of pressure. She was numb to the scale of the ossuary that lay beneath Paris—so many hundred of thousands of dead. How many generations lay here?

Dom paused. “No, this one,” he said, changing his mind. He took the righthand passage. Elze hesitated, looking along their back trail. There was a definite glow there now.

She hurried after Dom, hoping he was right.

The tunnel narrowed, and they reached a spot where the ceiling came down and the walls crowded in. Dom had to duck to avoid getting his head clawed by dangling skeletal fingers, and just beyond the narrow gap, Elze spotted something new: a metal grate. She stopped and examined it with her light. Could she put it over the gap? There wasn’t any way to fasten it in place, and after wasting a minute examining it, she hurried on.

Elze realized Dom’s light had disappeared. She stopped in the middle of the tunnel (which was definitely narrower than it had been), and cast about with her light. Where had he gone? She was about to panic when he suddenly stepped out from the wall. “Here,” he said, gesturing for her to follow him.

She swallowed her heart and bit back her angry retort.

He led her into a very narrow crack. She had to turn sideways to fit, and here and there, her clothing got caught by a protruding shard of bone. Ahead of her, Dom grunted and she heard a series of dry snapping sounds. “There,” he said, and his light played around a larger space. She reached the end of the crack, and carefully avoided the sharp ends of the bones Dom had broken as he had forced his way through. Something dragged across her shoulder, and she felt a wet sensation on her skin.

“Are you all right?” Dom asked.

She fingered the tear in her shirt, and there was blood on her finger when she looked at it in the light. “It’s just a scratch,” she said.

They were in a room, a real room. One with actual stone walls. There were stone steps that lead up into a narrow hall. “This way,” Dom said.

Elze followed. Where else was she going to go?

A gust of warm air surged at their back. They heard a stuttering echo, like a distant rumble of a landslide.

The stairs led to a doorway, which was missing its door. Beyond was a landing that looked very much like ground floor entrance to an old building that housed a number of tenants. A larger staircase lay to their right, and to their left was a large drift of sand. Elze found herself unnaturally excited to see loose sand.

Dom went up the stairs without hesitation. Not because he was a fool, but because his body knew these steps. How many times had he walked these stairs?

Elze followed. Dom went right past the next floor, and Elze dimly recalled her arrival at Dom’s apartment in Paris. Yes, she thought, it had been on the top floor. She didn’t recall much of the climb, as it had been a rather plain staircase in a rather plain building. The world was filled with places that were utilitarian and functional. They weren’t meant to be memorable.

They reached the next floor and Dom entered the apartment on the right. There was no door there either, and as Elze picked her way over the rubble of the threshold, she paused. A Rembrant, she remembered, staring at the stained and empty wall opposite the door. He had a Rembrandt there.

She remembered what her handler had told her, what seemed like so long ago now. Go to this address, her handler had said. Be there at this time. He won’t want to let you in. He won’t trust you. Not at first. But the key will be the Rembrandt. You won’t know it—it doesn’t exist as far as we know, but you will know who painted it. Tell him about another one. That is how you will convince him. Tell him there is another seascape. Convince him that you can show it to him.

It was all starting to make sense, even though it couldn’t be possible. What had Weston said? Ouroborean. He had to be talking about the Ouroborean Paradox—the idea that a time traveler could invent their own existence, that they could create a loop that could only be sustained by two versions of themselves. One who knew the future, and one who participated in the making of that future.

Her handler was a future version of herself. She had put Elze into a loop that couldn’t exist without her complicit—but unaware—participation. Lapis Twelve, Weston had said. That was how she didn’t know who the woman had been, because it had been a different body. She had Returned and been decanted again.

Which meant that in order for the future to happen, Elze had to die.

RETURN