(first revision, in progress)
It was a world of crystal. A world of steel and spell, quantum circuitry and etheric flux: but all of it bound and ruled by crystal. And Tam broke it whenever ze could.
Science has some disadvantages. For example: few people bother to learn more than science’s basic principles. Once a device gets more complicated than scissors or a light bulb, people tend to focus on how to use it and not why it works. But science still promises sanity. Trustworthiness. Order.
Magic on the other hand is built of chaos. Magic does what it wants when it wants. It’s contrary and wild, but if a person devotes their life learning the best ways to please and cajole it, it will probably do what they want. Which to be fair, is how many people think of scientific principles as well.
The line between magic and science has blurred to invisibility in the City, turning it into an inseparable mix of chaos confined by order, and order set free by chaos. Wonders big and small surround the inhabitants, making the City into the jewel of the Forty-One Worlds.
Some of those wonders are not intentional. Those range in effect from amusing diversion to major inconvenience, unless people are involved. No one wants to become one of the accidental wonders… but those who do have no choice.
– – – – –
Occasional aura flares undulated through the night sky like wind-blown membranes of colored lightning. That night they weren’t bright enough to block the stars, or to brighten the midnight darkness. That was fine, because it was a night for clandestine work.
The tight pile of the carpet swallowed their footsteps as Jeky, Paul, and Tam worked their way through the highest-clearance section of the research offices. Thankfully there had been no guards to avoid, since the building relied on technomagic security. Jeky had been there once already today during business hours, wandering around unquestioned; nobody ever paid much attention to Jeky. Nobody was able to without making a special effort, in fact. So some cameras and wards were quietly set for overnight diagnostics, and some passkeys went missing, et cetera, et cetera. But Jeky’s glitch wasn’t enough to do the night’s work alone.
Tam caught zirself studying the relaxing paint scheme on the corridor wall plates and forced zir focus back on Jeky. Ze didn’t like him much. He was smug and furtive, and Tam probably wouldn’t trust him if ze wasn’t being paid to do so. Even then, it wasn’t easy. Jeky looked quite pleased with himself as the last locked door thunked open. “Told you, like I told our patron Mx. Nameless. I got us all the way in without a worry. The next steps will be up to you two.”
They entered a room of acoustic paneling over armor tile. Along the walls hummed racks of infoscryers churning away on Void knew what complicated problems: maybe mana gem circuit design, maybe experimental medical formulas, maybe spaceship model effects for the next season of “Captain Shadow”. Paul could have dug out their secrets, but that wasn’t the reason the three of them were here. Paul’s attention, like Jeky’s and Tam’s, was reserved for the two-meter-square seamless metal plate on the far wall. A small electronic lock panel blinked quietly to one side of the plate.
Tam and Jeky shoved a nice desk and comfortable-looking chair out of the way, making room to work. Tam had never before met a glitcher with Jeky’s “I’m not here” ability, but ze had met data-spinners before. They could sense the sea of information surrounding them and soaking the City, and usually seemed more interested in that than in the real people around them. Paul represented the cliché perfectly, right down to the faint flicker of aura light in his pupils. Tam liked him better than ze liked Jeky, but that didn’t mean much.
Paul finished his initial inspection of the plate and lock panel, took a deep breath, and brought his glitch fully into play. He placed his right palm gently next to the lock, seemed to consider something, and began to wave his left hand slowly back and forth though the air nearby. It looked like cheap theatrics at first, but Tam slowly realized the gestures resembled lover’s caresses. Paul’s eyes had rolled back in his head, and Tam knew the glitcher was seeing and feeling things the other two of them never could.
The metal vault facing began to glow gentle yellow, and Paul’s caresses changed to fingertip tracings in the air. Naturally, the lock wasn’t purely technological; but that didn’t matter much. The magical elements of the lock still had rules. Rules are information, and information is data. Paul began to sweat a bit, but his movements remained confident. The yellow glow refined into straight lines, which slowly met to form a large golden square on the vault facing; without sound or drama, the material in the square faded from view. Paul stepped back, eyes still glazed. “Fancy. This one’s a tricky one; it will stay open for about ten minutes, then lock irreversibly for the next four hours. So hurry up.”
Neither Tam nor Jeky really listened to what Paul said. The only thing in the vault was a mana gem the size of Tam’s head. It floated motionless in the exact center of the space, unconcerned with gravity or support. Instead of the solid, faceted mass Tam expected to see from mana gems, this was an intricate, delicate network of crystal beams, bridges, and buttresses. It seemed to have been grown as much as refined. The gem’s shape was so complicated Tam found it hard to tear zir gaze away from it: almost the exact opposite of Jeky’s glitch, in a way. Ze’d never seen a data-storage gem like this one; but there couldn’t be any doubt: this was the target. Tam fought down a powerful image of smashing it to pieces against the floor; this was not the time to break something.
Jeky reached in to claim the team’s prize, but no matter how he tried to grasp it, his hands slipped away as if rejected by the gem’s surface. He leaned in to try another angle, and another, but couldn’t get a purchase. “Exactly as expected, but it never hurts to try. All right: Tam, you’re up.”
Tam eased Paul and Jeky aside, standing directly in front of the vault. Tam reached out, palms in the air as if lifting an invisible copy of the gem, and did the one thing ze hated to do most of all.
– – – – –
Five years ago, Tam’s younger sister danced beside zir in Cat Sun Park, running ahead then turning back and skipping behind. She was about three-quarters Tam’s height, blond with a triangular face and a beaming smile. Tam laughed. “You’re just full of energy today!”
“Well why not?” Cosi replied. “I’ve been trying to get you to come to the park with me for a month, and there’s always been an excuse. Oh, the weather’s bad; oh, I’ve got errands to run; oh, there’s been an aura fault and the Park’s temporarily hip-deep in snapping turtles…”
“Aura fault? Well, isn’t that fancy talk. The Park glitched that day, my dear. We are surrounded by glitches. Oh look, we say, a glitch here, and a glitch there, glitch today, glitch tomorrow. Check your personal aura forecast before heading in the morning! It’s the price we pay to live in the midst of wealth and wonder.”
Cosi’s smile dimmed and she stopped bouncing. “But we aren’t supposed to say it. You know Mom says it’s a bad word and she shudders. MomAgain doesn’t mind so much, but you’ve seen the face Dad gets when someone mentions a person glitching.” She stepped close and craned her head up to speak softly to Tam. “I haven’t told you this before, but a while back I sort of tricked MomAgain into saying it: she’s pretty sure one of his closest friends glitched some years back and he couldn’t associate with them any more. It just wouldn’t do to be seen with glitchers. Mom came in and heard the end of it and got pissed, and said I wasn’t allowed to repeat it and to never bring it up again.”
A bit of mischief returned to her expression. “So I’m being super bad right now, telling you.” Cosi turned away suddenly, and Tam couldn’t tell what she was thinking. “I mean, what would you do if you found out someone you really liked was a glitcher?”
Tam folded zir arms. “Nobody glitches on purpose, Cosi. It’s an accident, and they aren’t to blame. And the Ministry has tons of programs to help glitchers out, help them adapt to their glitches and rejoin society as normally as they can.”
Cosi turned back toward Tam, annoyed. “You sound like an infotower civic announcement. All that stuff’s surt, and you know it. Sure, everyone knows glitching isn’t a disease, but then everyone acts like hanging around glitchers might give them a case of it. It’s not fair at all. I mean, I hear there’s an entire underground society of glitchers because no one else will treat them like people.”
Tam put sudden concern in zir voice. “Cosi? Have any of your friends glitched?”
“NO! Everyone I know is Unchanged. None of my friends would be like -” She looked shocked, then embarrassed. “Okay. Right. I see what you just did. But I still don’t think it’s fair.”
Tam shrugged. “Lots of things aren’t fair.”
Right then – just then – they heard the screams. Everyone around them was pointing up, or running away. Tam and Cosi looked up, and both saw the bright red aerotruck, thick brown smoke coming from its lift rings, falling out of control. Falling from hundreds of meters up. Falling right toward them.
“Cosi, RUN!” And Tam was off, long legs pumping. Direction didn’t matter, as long as it was away. A crashing aerotruck would probably smash rather than splash, and the safety fields inside must have triggered, but still Tam didn’t want to be anywhere near the impact.
Tam looked back, and fell over. Cosi was standing stock-still, staring at the truck, frozen in place. Staring at the aerotruck that was heading right for her.
Time slowed to a crawl. There was nothing Tam could do. Ze was going to lie there on the ground and watch zir little sister die and there was nothing ze could do and suddenly Tam hated whatever had broken in the truck’s lift system and hated the people who were supposed to maintain it and hated the City where reality broke all the time but not to save zir little sister and
and there was a wordless shout of millions of voices in Tam’s nerves, bones, blood, heart and
and something shifted inside Tam, forever and
and Tam pushed. Pushed hard. Not with zir hands, though hands and arms were going through the motions. Tam was barely aware of traceries of crimson light glowing through zir skin where muscle slid past muscle. Tam pushed with something else, and pushed so hard that the aerotruck crumpled slowly as it fell through viscous time. Tam felt equipment break, and safety fields fail, and the people in the cab die, crushed by invisible force.
Tam couldn’t stop pushing, because… because… with just a bit more… a bit more…
The truck touched ground. Time snapped back to normal, and the crumpled vehicle smashed into the earth, scattering dirt and grass. Three people lay under the wreckage, fatally injured.
Cosi… was untouched.
Tam got to zir feet. Cosi stood there, looking around, trying to figure out why she wasn’t dead. Seconds ago, she’d known the end was coming, and now it hadn’t. She looked around, confused… and saw Tam. She saw the expression on Tam’s face, and the fading light in Tam’s arms. In one of those moments that siblings sometimes share, Cosi knew.
She burst into tears.
Tam, the City’s newest glitcher, turned away and went back to running. Tam ran away from the death, ran away from the shock, ran away from the shame… ran away from zir sister.
– – – – –
Tam remembered. Tam remembered pushing, and discovering ze could also pull; and zir muscles flashed with fire as ze pulled right now with that same ability. The data gem slowly responded, sliding reluctantly from whatever invisible sheath kept it confined to the vault. It was nearly as difficult to avoid crushing it as it was to pull it free, but after five intense minutes, the gem was free of the vault and settling into Tam’s outstretched hands. Jeky immediately took it from zir, which was fine because Tam was a bit shaken with the effort and wanted any droppage to be someone else’s responsibility. Thirty seconds later, the door reappeared without any fuss, and the vault was sealed once again.
Jeky looked at the rest of his team. “Five minutes. Catch your breath, and then we’re out of here.”
The group all tried to walk casually down the corridor as if it was perfectly natural to be toting around a ridiculously valuable data sculpture in the middle of the night. Tam still felt a bit sick from reliving zir awful memory. Ze tried to think of other things: how to spend the coin they’d collect for the night’s work, or the real identity of their anonymous patron, or how nice bed would feel when ze got back to zir apartment.
“Stop right there.”
Someone had slid out of a crossing hall and leveled a weapon on them. Tam immediately took note of the important information: big enough to be trouble in a fistfight, armor vest, shoulder cloak maybe concealing anything, and a very obvious, wicked-looking blaster knife.
“Gentlemen – and you, friend: I’m impressed by your punctuality,” the woman said. “This is exactly where I was told you’d be. I appreciate your efforts in recovering the data gem, and I appreciate how you’re going to set it down gently and move away so I can take possession.”
Tam glanced at Paul and Jeky. This was not Mx. Nameless, but whoever they were, they knew too damn much. Where they’d be, when they’d be, and who they’d be – especially who: Tam was presenting male tonight by whim, but this person knew that wasn’t a given.
Tam had to admire the calm in Jeky’s voice. “Well; I appreciate how much you’re going to pay us for the gem… unless you aren’t working for our patron, in which case you should at least pay double. Just good manners.”
The stranger was no less calm. “I can drop all three of you with this before you can get within a meter of me or pull a weapon. I’d rather not, since I’d hate to smash that crystal in the process. Set it down.”
A weapon? Maybe she didn’t know everything, then.
Jeky was dumb, though. Maybe he needed the evening’s pay worse than he’d ever admitted, because he went for the flamewand tucked in his sleeve. But the crystal got in the way, and the stranger’s weapon spoke. Jeky went down. Somehow the crystal survived.
The stranger didn’t hesitate. A second shot knocked Paul over, and the blaster knife began to shift again –
Again, time froze. Remembering how to use the glitch was always easier if Tam had recently done it: thankfully, ze didn’t have to bring back the full memory, just the feeling of it. Tam mentally smacked the blaster knife hard and it went flying from the stranger’s hand before she could trigger it. Tam lifted glowing arms into the air and thought about pushing hard. She hit the ceiling with a nasty thump and stayed there, dazed.
“You don’t have any money for us, then?” Tam asked unpleasantly and kept pushing.
She shook her head, shifting from a dazed expression to a frightened one as the pressure increased. Tam shook with five years of bitterness and anger as ze prepared for one more push, a hard one. Ze may not have been allowed to break the data gem, but Tam was sure as Void going to break something tonight.
Tam took a long breath, and another one; then with an effort, made new pictures in zir mind. The stranger fell from the ceiling and flew back down the hall several meters, bounced off a wall and flopping limp to the carpet. Tam found the dropped blaster knife and squeezed it into an impossibly small, wadded-up lump. There: much better. Something got broken.
Jeky and Paul stood up. Tam whipped around in surprise. “Ten-second stun charge,” Jeky said. “Easy to shake off.”
“Says you,” Paul broke in. “My nerves are still buzzing.”
“Wanted to make sure we could stop you before you did anything really permanent to poor Addis. But we didn’t have to.”
In the corner of zir eye, Tam saw the woman sit up and breathe deeply. “The pressure ward worked fine, Jeky. Though I’m not sure it would have lasted much longer. Ze’s pretty hardcore.”
“So Tam, here’s your pay.” Jeky wound up and threw the data crystal hard at Tam. It bounced off zir chest and crashed to the floor, shattering beyond recovery.
“What the surkking Void, Jeky?” Tam yelled. “There was something like fifty years of research data in there!”
“Nope. Fifty years of fliegenball game videos. Though I admit it would have been fun to watch the oh-four championship again. I’m sure I can download it somewhere, though.” Jeky picked up his flamewand. “Anyway, nice work. See you later maybe.”
“That time already? I hate this part too,” Paul said, and the two of them blurred and evaporated, leaving nothing behind but a faint electrical smell and two quickly-fading twists of disturbed aura.
Tam stood flabbergasted. Ze looked over to where Addis had been, but she was gone as well. Tam had seen plenty of transbeam departures on the infotower shows, but until just now ze had been pretty sure you needed both a large carrier capsule and a small building full of transmission equipment to ride one.
Tam looked down at the remains of their prize. There was an intact credit gem lying among the data crystal debris. Tam checked it: it held every centi of the payment Tam had been promised, and a bit more. There was a message attached.
“Your presence is greatly desired as part of an exclusive evening of conversation, cuisine, and cryptic ceremony.
“We request you join us at the Syncore Excursions office adjacent to the Abyssal Avenue Docks at 10pm tomorrow, the last of Witchmonth, 712. Please favor us with a response to this invitation: we dearly wish to be graced by your company.
“Dress to impress. Late arrival would be unfortunate.”
The message was signed, “Mistress Korva Messiér.”
Tam was shaken. Ze had to read the signature twice more before it sank in. No one with any sense got involved with the affairs of the City’s Mistroxi. No one with any sense refused an invitation from one, either. This promised to be interesting; and the evening had already been plenty interesting enough to last Tam for a while.
It didn’t matter. Tam shook zirself, and headed out of the building. Somehow, ze knew there would be no further interference with zir exit. There would be nothing else to break tonight.
– – – – –
The next evening, a furious aura storm flickered silently over the City in sheets and swells of ever-changing color. It was the last night of the month, the one night of the year when the boundaries between this reality and other fantastic realms were supposed to be weakest. People gathered all over for raucous parties at which they wore exotic costumes, enjoyed mostly-legal intoxicants, and determinedly stayed indoors as much as possible. Reality could be a delicate thing in the City any time of year, but on Witchnight folks turned up their wards and the music and hoped desperately that nothing would be too different the next morning.
A small group of people tentatively gathered at the Syncore Excursions office as 10pm drew near. Tam suspected everyone else had taken the invitation’s warning as seriously as ze had. People’s outfits were varied and exotic: One large woman wore rich, heavy garments well tailored, yet suggestive of armor. Another man wore a glossy skintight outfit that revealed every detail of his sculpted body, and probably concealed at least three small weapons and a pocketbook via technomagic. Another person showed enough skin to be titillating, but not undressed. They were one of the few to openly show a weapon, a mid-sized power blade; wearing that in public took more fortitude than showing the skin. Tam zirself wore a pocketed vest over a satin blouse, and cycling shorts under a dragonskin half-skirt that exposed the left leg. Ze wasn’t carrying a weapon except zir glitch. That’s why the blouse was long sleeved: Tam didn’t want any tell-tale glowing if ze got too wound up.
Staying calm wasn’t easy. Tam felt oddly nervous and embarrassed. Beside the apprehension accompanying the cryptic invitation, ze didn’t find it easy to be around so many other people. A part of Tam wanted nothing more than to run away from the entire evening. Ze’d avoided gatherings since ze glitched, keeping to zirself unless working a job. For that matter, one or two of the group looked familiar, Tam might have crossed paths with them when doing glitcher work. But it wasn’t necessarily good manners to acknowledge another glitcher unless certain of one’s surroundings. And these surroundings were most uncertain.
The docks were unused this time of night, though faint light and sound drifted from the more heavily-used facilities farther south. Ocean water slapped gently against the permastone pier supports. The colors in the sky silhouetted distant aerocars and aerotrucks flying above the City on unknown errands, but did little more than the street lighting to illuminate nearby shadows. There wasn’t much violent crime in the City, but Tam still probably wouldn’t have walked here alone most nights. Tonight, Tam didn’t feel threatened by the shadows: they were the least of zir concerns. What did could the Mistress possibly want with these folks in a deserted place like this?
Tam took another look at their destination: the Syncore Excursions office was dark and locked. The building wasn’t fancy, clearly a quick if solid job by the Constructors’ Guild. The small, flat-roofed structure was in decent shape, but it looked as though it had not been inhabited for a few years. Delicate calligraphy on a torn sheet of cardboard taped to the front door requested they wait outside. There wasn’t much else to do. A few people peered uselessly through the dark windows. Some of the party murmured conjectures at each other, but Tam resisted making any guesses of zir own. Mistress Messiér loved theatrics and surprises, and Tam was certain any such guess would be wrong.
Tam was correct. At precisely 10pm, the water nearby roared with agitation, and an astoundingly large white tentacle shot into the air. The tentacle swung wildly about overhead, scattering water about the pier yet somehow barely missing them all. One or two people looked like they wanted to draw weapons, but either restraint or reason prevailed. Nothing anyone might have been carrying was going to make a dent in the hide of that appendage.
The Leviathan. Everyone immediately recognized what they saw. The creature attached to this limb was no half-imagined cryptid; pictures and recordings of the huge, white, torpedo-shaped beast could be found all over scryNet. Rarely did the average person have a chance to see it for in person. Underwater tourism attempts almost always found themselves somehow heading in the wrong direction, or vanishing to reappear two or three weeks later, hundreds of kilometers away and quite confused. The Leviathan, apparently, liked its privacy.
Tam spent a few terrified seconds remembering what ze could. The skin of the Leviathan was smooth and featureless, other than a few faint grey markings. Two giant faceted crystalline eyes at the front end were all it had for a face. The rear end was composed of dozens of overlapping scales or flaps that seemed to have something to do with its forward motion. Otherwise, the only visible features were the several tentacles emerging radially from its midsection. Video recordings showed them grasping and moving objects the Leviathan found inconvenient…
… or tasty.
The tentacle whipped down towards them. Tam knew zir muscles must be starting to glow under zir sleeves, but furiously clamped down on the urge to let zir glitch loose. The Mistress hadn’t brought all these people here just kill them off. Cold-blooded, overdone murders weren’t her style.
The tentacle descended and smashed flat the offices of Syncore Excursions, sending wood, crystal, and permastone debris flying. Again, somehow, the projectiles touched none of the party. It sat still for a moment, then slid slowly back down into the water until only the very end of it remained on the pier. After a long moment, the flat disk on the end of the limb irised slowly open to reveal rings of gleaming grey teeth, behind which a blood-red gullet led down, down into the tentacle.
Tam considered visibly losing zir composure. The three-meter-wide open mouth seemed to scream mangled, suffocating death at them all. The group gave their undivided attention to the terrible vision before them, which meant some jumped slightly – Tam among them – when a voice behind them said, “My casters told me they could keep either you folks or the building unharmed. Lucky for you all that the building’s less important.”
Mistress Korva Messiér stood there, confident, self-assured… perhaps just a bit smug. She was a tall, handsome woman with dark, wavy hair and a touch of hardness about the eyes. She wore heavy boots, leggings, a belt pouch, and a sleek, loose jacket over… well, nothing. No matter how she moved, the jacket somehow only fell open enough to tease; and there was no visible support for what was underneath; but again: technomagic. It said clearly that she had access to means the viewer probably didn’t.
The Masters, Mistresses, and Maestres of the City were an elite group. Unlike the Royal Family, the City Council, or the Cybercasters’ Guild, they played no obvious role in governing the metropolis. True, some of them had access to plenty of tangible resources, but others seemed to possess little more than the Public Living Stipend. Either way, they wielded great power in the form of favors, alliances, family heritage, and even honest friendships. Some said they were the real rulers of the City, but if so, that was completely hidden from view. However, an encounter with any of the Mistroxi was likely to be memorable; and no one with any sense crossed them.
Mistress Messiér showed a surprisingly sincere smile. “Thank you all very much for coming. I appreciate the time and effort you’ve put forth, and I hope you will find the evening worth it. Would you all please follow me?” She walked through the still somewhat dazed group, which parted for her almost automatically; then, without hesitation, she stepped over the teeth into the tentacle’s maw.
She looked back at the immobile invitees and smirked slightly. “Oh, come now. I assure you it’s safe. Why, my casters insist we probably have four, even five minutes before we’re considered a potential food source.” The Mistress turned back walked confidently down into the tentacle. Tam couldn’t quite bring zirself to be the first to follow her, but managed to not be the last. One by one they reluctantly walked into the nightmare. A few moments after the last person entered, the mouth irised closed again. All was still for a minute or two, then the tentacle languidly slid off the pier into the depths.
Shortly afterwards, the entire pier collapsed into the dark nighttime waters.
– – – – –
Tam could see fairly well inside the tentacle, though ze wasn’t at all sure where the light was coming from. The ribbed flesh around the group looked disturbingly slimy, but thankfully possessed just a faint fishy odor instead of the stench ze had expected. Despite the floor’s oily appearance, zir feet stayed clean and dry, and the footing remained sure. Fresh air flowed gently past the descending group from somewhere, and though Tam knew the tentacle had to be almost vertical at some points to reach from the depths, it seemed perfectly level inside and ze always walked upright. This, at least, was a familiar trick. Some of the fancier buildings downtown built the same effect into ramps leading from floor to floor, but the experience was a bit different when one was stepping along living tissue. Tam was thankful for a bit of familiarity. The part of zir that had wanted to flee earlier was silently screaming; technomagic tricks or not, they were all intentionally walking into a monster’s digestive system. Only the presence of their host reassured Tam at all. Ze was pretty sure the Mistress wasn’t planning to be anything’s dinner.
After a walk of maybe ten minutes the group reached a shimmering pearlescent disk set into the flesh in the side of the passage. The Mistress was there ahead of them with that same not-quite smug expression, and once everyone could see her, she gestured toward it and stepped directly through the shimmer. Of course, they all followed. What else was there to do?
Tam knew as a certain thing that the trip down the tentacle was only the first of the evening’s surprises, but ze wasn’t at all ready for the spectacle before zir. Before them spread a vast chamber, capable of holding hundreds of people easily. The slightly uneven floor was made of something much like mother-of-pearl. At the outer edge of the chamber, pillars of cloudy crystalline resin broke free of the floor to tower several meters above their heads. The resin became something like translucent cartilage, which arched overhead to fuse together in the center of the ceiling. Silver metallic veins ran through the resin pillars, all of which glowed brightly with white luminescence. Awe replaced terror; the room was incredibly beautiful.
Between most of the glowing pillars… there was nothing but water. For a moment, Tam had the feeling of inhabiting a cyclopean fish tank. The water surfaces were completely flat, but showed no gleam of glass, blur of force panels, or glow of magic. Something certainly kept the water outside the room, but Tam had no idea what. Ze would have to be content to know something was doing the job, as obviously they were far beneath the surface. Strangely, Tam had never seen a single picture of the Leviathan showing such a structure. They had to be well inside it, yet the view was unbroken. Two things were immediately evident: this room was alive, and powerful forces were at work around them.
It was metal and magic and crystal and perhaps the first such construct in years Tam hadn’t immediately wanted to break.
The wall they’d just walked through wasn’t water, but more of the shimmering mother-of-pearl. Two other walls around the room were made of the same stuff, and in front of each stood another group approximately the same size as Tam’s. Mistress Messiér stood before Tam’s group… and led the second group, and the third. Triplets? A glitch? There were minor differences in clothing and hairstyle, but physically the three women were clearly the same person.
“Ah… there you are,” the three said almost but not quite in unison. “Let’s get this done.” They walked toward each other, meeting in the center of the room. They all tensed slightly, and each pushed into the others – literally. They merged, and before them stood one Mistress. Her ensemble was now a combination of her previous looks, but that made for little change. She shook herself slightly, held her hands and arms before her for a quick inspection, and spun around slowly to smile at the confused partygoers. “Don’t worry! I’ll explain later.”
The Mistress spread her arms as if to encompass the room. “I’ll explain it all later. For now, this is one of my parties, and you are all very welcome here. Now, I promised you three things. I’ll reserve the ceremony, but you’ll find the cuisine excellent, and the conversation should be intriguing… in the meantime, I must confer privately with my staff.” Several banquet tables were set around the periphery of the room, so ordinary that Tam had barely noticed them; and they were well stocked with food and drink. Several people in fashionable but relatively unobtrusive formal wear moved from behind the tables: some of them wore fairly obvious cybercasting augmentation. She drew them to one side of the room, and the invited folk nearby found themselves suddenly motivated to move away. Perhaps it was magic… perhaps it was simply good sense.
Tam found the food very much to zir liking, and was grateful for something uncomplicated on which to focus. Many of the presented delicacies were reasonably familiar, but some were so strange that ze suspected them to be off-planet imports. Everything ze was brave enough to try tasted quite good, and Tam found the evening’s surprises had given zir quite an appetite. Tam avoided the alcoholic beverages, and stuck to soft drinks. Ze didn’t want to addle zir brains any further.
Before long, though, the sheet of water behind the table compelled zir attention; Tam walked up to it and looked out look into the remarkably clear sea. Water was visible everywhere ze looked. Tam reached out to touch the surface of the sheet, changed zir mind several times, and withdrew zir hand. Ze tried craning zir neck around, but could see no sign of the beast they were undeniably inside. Tam could see the ocean floor, so they had to be deep and far from the coast. Ruined stone buildings slid slowly by down there; curiously, they belonged to no culture Tam had ever heard of. Tam circled around a pillar to the next window to get a better look at a temple-like structure, and drew zir head back in surprise. The buildings below were gone. In fact, the seabed was gone, and Tam looked down into deep water empty but for schools of strange fish. Ze looked back at the previous window, and the ruins were still there. Tam walked quickly to a third, and started; in this portal, a massive submarine of bronze metal glided next to them, emblazoned with a curious emblem of a treefruit bearing an unknown rune.
“I don’t think they’re video displays,” said a woman coming up beside Tam. Tam turned to look at her. “Hi. I’m Amile. What’s your name?”
Tam’s normal antisocial impulses were overridden by a need to make connection to anyone on this insane evening. “I’m Tam. What makes you think that?” Amile was a brunette with a round face and a mischievous look. She wore flowing blue robes that showed only her head and hands, and her face was aglow with excitement. Her fingers were unusually long, and delicately-engraved metal covered her fingertips. There was something odd about her smile, but Tam couldn’t immediately say exactly what.
“I don’t know what they’re made of, but I think they are real windows. What we’re seeing on the other side is exactly what’s there… even if ‘there’ is different for each one.”
Another person, of flexible gender, joined them. “I’ve seen lots of pictures of the Leviathan. There’s no place like this room on it’s, ah, hide. I’m not certain any of these open to waters around the City. Don’t ask me how it works, but I suspect these oceans belong to various places far away… maybe not just in physical distance. And I’m Carden.” Red-headed Carden wore a long-sleeved, cropped linen top exposing a muscular lower torso, and slacks with gold curling embroidery around all the seams. “You must be feeling it: there’s so much magic in this place, my skull is practically vibrating.”
“Not just any magic, either,” Amile said cryptically.
“What do you mean?” asked Carden.
“Look at everyone here. Not at their faces or clothes. I mean – just – just – not with your eyes. I mean look at them!”
And suddenly Tam realized what she meant. Whether tied to a person or place, glitches were sometimes compared to knots in the fabric of space-time: tangles in the ether where reality had scarred over minor wounds. Many glitchers joked about being able to identify another one by picking up instinctively on that small irregularity; ‘glitch-smelling’ was a popular term for the ability. It was more often accurate than not, but not something anyone relied on.
Tam was sure. Ze could tell Carden realized it; and the expressions slowly spreading through other parts of the room spoke the same conclusion. Every single guest in this room was a glitcher. For many, once you paid attention it wasn’t necessary to guess: they showed physical evidence via complexion or body shape or the way they moved. Tam realized that Amile’s teeth were unusually pointed, and her long fingers reminded zir of talons.
Tam felt disturbed and excited at the same time. On the one hand, the thought of so many people in one place knowing zir nature scared and embarrassed zir terribly. Usually, when an Unchanged person learned Tam was a glitcher, they’d either immediately excuse themselves and slip away, or they’d shortly offer Tam a job that wasn’t entirely legal. The experience soured one after a while: the urge to break something flared intensely then. On the other hand, ze’d never knowingly been around this many other glitchers at once. It felt a little bit like being part of an exclusive club, here in this scintillating, wonderfully ridiculous, magic-soaked hall.
“Good evening, everyone!” Mistress Messiér called from a raised dais-like area in the middle of the room. The chatter faded swiftly, and everyone’s attention returned to her. “I do hope everyone is having a fascinating time tonight.” She received several awkwardly positive responses.
“I know you all had questions at the start of the evening, and I’m sure you all have even more questions now; so let me try to answer several of them. Firstly, we are indeed deep in the body of the Leviathan, in a fascinating organ I like to call its ‘hyperbrane’.”
Someone spoke up. “This doesn’t look like any sentient being’s brain I’ve ever seen.”
“No, ‘brane’ as in… well, no one’s here for a math lesson. Imagine an object that is itself many objects, existing in as four, five, one hundred, or as many geometric dimensions as one needs it to. As you can all see simply by looking outside, Leviathan has many existences in many times and places. We are standing the organ of the Leviathan that ties together all its existences into one. Earlier tonight, I and I and I completed an experiment in manipulating that organ from three different spaces… with the Leviathan’s consent, of course.” She looked pensive for a moment. “I found the experience… unique.”
Tam wondered what kind of arrangement the Mistress could possibly have made with a creature that to anyone’s knowledge, even spoke. Zir imagination wasn’t up to that challenge.
Someone else waved a hand around. “Why does it look like this?”
“Ah, my casters have provided a lengthy, complex explanation for that. As near as I can understand, it boils down to: because.”
Amile spoke up. “Mistress, I’m not disappointed with any of this. It’s incredible. But you didn’t invite such – ah – specific people here just to feed us and show off. Why are we all here tonight?”
Messiér’s tone went from self-satisfied to sober. “We’re going to stop a war.”
– – – – –
She nodded in acknowledgement of the sudden hush. “It’s a simple problem, really. Based on information known only to an privileged few in the Cybercasters’ Temple; three years from now, maybe four, a war will consume our City. Millions of people will be wiped out, and the City as we know it may cease to exist.”
“How can they possibly know that?” Amile asked.
The Mistress’ face became even graver. “I’m not entirely sure. The information from my own… sources is incomplete. For all we know, the Cybercasters may be intending to start it.”
Tam didn’t want attention but couldn’t contain zirself at that. Questions forced their way out, tumbling over one another. “How can they start a war? Does the Council know? Does the Royal Family? Why do we have to stop them?”
“We can’t stop them until we have proof. We need data; we need information. And yes, the right people know.”
Tam thought ze saw Messiér’s gaze flicker to a masked young woman wearing an expensively adorable dress and a grim smile. Something about the woman’s body language… could it be… No. No, no, no. Heir to the Throne Princess Swiftstorm was not a glitcher attending a glitcher party. Tam looked away and decided that the evening was clearly scrambling zir wits.
The Mistress continued. “Tonight, we intend to obtain this information. All of you are, well – forgive me – irregularities in the fabric of space and time. Here, in this world-spanning hyperbrane, we are going to use that quality to our advantage. We will all work together to obtain what we need, and perhaps stave off this approaching disaster.”
A concerned babble grew in the room. “Is this going to be dangerous?” someone called out.
“Well, now. You were all… vetted before you received your invitations. I am not concerned about your ability to handle a tiny risk like the ether itself pulling apart your physical existence,” and that annoying smirk reappeared on her face.
The babble grew louder. “Hey! What are we getting out of this?” someone else shouted.
The smirk didn’t fade. “Not only will you help potentially stop a war, which should appeal to your better nature; not only will you be collectively sticking it to a cabal of Cybercasters who richly deserve an ass-kicking; but I will owe each and every one of you… a favor.”
That quieted the room again. Tam tried to imagine what ze might do with a favor from one of the most influential Mistroxi in the City. Then, Tam tried to imagine what ze couldn’t do. That list seemed shorter. Ze experienced an emotion difficult to identify as either excitement or terror.
“Besides,” Messiér’s smirk turned into an ugly smile, “exactly how do you propose to leave this place without my good will?”
The glitchers looked around them at the sealed room inside the belly of a monstrous creature deep beneath the ocean. It was one of the most rhetorical of questions.
“Any further questions? No? Excellent. Now, would Amile, Carden, Rayna, and Tam please come forward?”
Tam would really rather not have, but did so. Zir two companions did as well, and the armored woman Tam had seen on the pier joined them.
“Again, I welcome you! Tonight the four of you will play special roles in our ceremony. Your fellows will loan us their strength, but I’m afraid we’ll ask a little more of you and your specific glitches. I hope it helps somewhat to know I have nothing but confidence in your abilities.
“Now, let me tell you of your roles. I’ll start with Rayna: you will be the Dreamer in this ritual. The Dreamer must see what others cannot. To demonstrate, I would draw your attention to the opaque screen set up here to my left. I request that the Dreamer show everyone what sits behind the screen.”
Rayna looked apprehensive. “Well. I, er, can only see things myself. I can’t show what I see to others.”
“I know that, but tonight is special, my dear. You are in no normal setting, and you will be provided with strength beyond your own. Now, please show us.”
It was no request, but a polite command. Rayna seemed only uncertain, but Tam felt embarrassed on her behalf. The thought of putting one’s glitch on display for an assembled crowd turned zir stomach… especially considering that it appeared Tam was in line to make the same demonstration.
Rayna crossed her arms and closed her eyes. Her hair began to swirl around her head as if caught in a twisting breeze only she could feel. Tam’s vision blurred, and ze rubbed zir eyes before realizing it was Rayna’s glitch at work. Slowly Tam got a steadily clearing picture of a large steel box, at least a meter tall and maybe two-thirds that wide and deep.
“Wonderful!” The Mistress seemed honestly pleased. “That’s the target of our demonstration; we are interested in the contents of that box.
“Now, then. The next role is the Puppeteer. The Puppeteer will bend the guardians of the box to their will: Carden, as I’m sure you have guessed, that will be your part to play. It just so happens that the box Rayna is showing us needs to be placed upon that pedestal there.” She indicated such on the other side of the dias.
“Make me do it.”
Carden blushed crimson, and Tam felt a moment’s urge to hug them. “Uh… I’m sure I shouldn’t dare to handle… well, a person in your position…”
“Come now. I’m specifically requesting you to do this. I’ll certainly resist, but only because I want a personal sample of your ability. Besides: who here in this room wouldn’t like to see me taken down a peg right now?”
Her smile was definitely getting on Tam’s nerves at this point, but ze had to agree it was a good motivation. Ze watched Carden sigh, and compose themself. Their expression blanked, then changed to deep concentration. The Puppeteer became inhumanly still; in fact, unless it was Tam’s imagination, Carden’s skin gained a pale sheen. They seemed to become a polished stone statue, until Tam looked very carefully and saw tiny twitches of their fingers.
The Mistress began to walk over to the screen. At first, it was clear she was resisting: her brow furrowed and her steps were jerky and uncoordinated. Twice she took a few steps backward; but before long her movements became perfectly natural. She slid the screen aside, bent at the knees, and picked up the box. Tam realized the box had to be massive, yet she moved it about like empty cardboard. Did Carden have that much control normally, or was their ability being enhanced just as Rayna’s was?
The Mistress walked over to the other side of the dias and set the box down delicately on the narrow pedestal, then with great effort looked significantly at Carden. They dropped their control, and she breathed deeply. “That was a remarkable experience. Thank you, Carden. You will do wonderfully as the Puppeteer.
“Now, who’s up next? It’s a shame, but I believe I may have forgotten the lock code for this box. However, we have a wonderful second option. I have no doubt that the Raptor will be able to breach this obstacle for us.”
“That’s me, isn’t it?” asked Amile in a small voice.
“Indeed: Amile, you are to take the part of the Raptor. Please do open this box for me. Now, take care; you needn’t be gentle with the box itself, but the contents are delicate.”
Amile’s face showed anxiety and resignation at the same time. Slowly and precisely, she removed the metal covers from her fingers, placing the covers in a pocket. Underneath the covers were not fingernails over rounded fingertips, but tapered digits ending in bone-white claws. She wouldn’t look at anyone, including the Mistress. Amile took a deep breath and composed herself. Her hands clenched tight into twitching fists as her sides; then with a theatrical yet sincere roar she spun around swiftly, raising a clawed hand and bringing it down with a slicing motion. Almost faster than Tam could follow, the front of the box was torn completely away with a protesting shriek, and a clang as it hit the floor.
The box wobbled slightly on its pedestal. Inside was an old used data gem. This was no intricate sculpture, but a kind Tam was much more used to seeing. The gem was a little bigger than a person’s head and could have stored immense amounts of information, but it was colored bland grey, dead and empty. It could still shatter if dropped, but was nowhere near as delicate as last night’s bogus target.
Amile was breathing heavily, and she looked like she’d enjoyed the display much more than she’d expected to. The Mistress looked almost like she wanted to applaud. “Wonderful! Very well done! We may have half a chance of this working.
“Our final starring role is no less important. Thanks to Amile’s precision, the gem inside is undamaged, but still held in place by cushioning fields. Again, I don’t seem to have the release key. Because of this, it is literally impossible to reach in and remove it: impossible with one’s hands or any physical manipulators. We will need someone to take the role of the Extractor, and we have that person here.”
Tam was hardly surprised. This was exactly what ze’d done in what ze now understood was an audition for tonight. Tam struggled with zirself. That last thing ze wanted to do right now was put zir glitch on display for a crowd. But they were all glitchers as well… and Rayna, Carden, and Amile had all stepped up to the challenge. Tam knew ze didn’t really have a choice, and resented that.
“All right, Tam. As the Extractor, you will please remove this artifact from the box containing it. The metal edges of the tear are slightly ragged, so please do not damage the gem in any way when you retrieve it.”
Tam gritted zir teeth. At least this shouldn’t be quite the challenge the others had faced; after all, Tam had just done exactly this.
Ze reached out, palms up, and…
remembered screams, and smoke, and zir innocent sister looking up at her oncoming death…
and Tam’s arms flared crimson. Just as before, the gem resisted at first. But soon enough it began to move from the box, free of its cushioning –
And time again slowed to a crawl as Mistress Messiér kicked the pedestal over. The gem was no longer protected, so if it hit the floor with the box it would shatter into countless fragments. Tam knew instinctively that this would lead to many kinds of unfortunate results, and focused all zir attention on completing the extraction with the box in motion and heading for impact.
No! Tam focused, humiliated and furious. Previously unknown strength flowed from the room itself into Tam’s glitch. Then – then time was normal again, and the box hit the floor with a clank.
Tam looked at the Mistress over the gem nestled safely in zir hands, and tried three times to say something. Finally ze got out a tightly controlled “That wasn’t funny.”
“But it was necessary. You will be working with a moving target, and you won’t have very long to do it. However, I can see my faith in you is justified.”
Tam stepped back without being told to, but Mistress Messiér’s attention was back on the crowd. “Gentleglitchers! We are going to discuss the Dragon Archive.”
Gasps, exclamations, and furtive conversation filled the room. The Dragon Archive was more than rumor, less than fact. The Archive was said to contain material dating from modern times back to the beginning of the Seventh Age and the founding of the City, and almost certainly even before then – mysteries possibly a thousand years old or more. Unlike so much of the collected history of the Age, supposedly the Dragon Archive was untouched by any glitch or damage that might have corrupted the secrets it carried.
Like legendary lost civilizations, sinister world-girdling conspiracies, or demonic ship-eating creatures wandering the ether, almost everyone had heard of the Archive and almost no one with any sense believed it existed. Tam wondered just how much more ze was expected to accept before zir brain overloaded and crashed for the night.
“The Dragon Archive is real, and the Dragon Archive is in the possession of the Cybercasters’ Guild. Even they do not have access to every secret contained therein. Apparently, no one included a search function. And therefore they experiment upon it constantly, moving it among secure locations in the City to perform this ritual or that scanning procedure. Top technicians, casters, and even glitchers have dropped from view upon joining this project. But sometimes people talk to those they trust most before disappearing. And sometimes those trusted folk can be convinced to share what they know.
“You don’t need to know much more. We don’t have all night, and I hope by this time you all are ready to believe the things I tell you. And I tell you, the Archive is being moved right now. A massive armored air vehicle, accompanied by a small fleet of support and protection aerocars manned by Cybercasters and Ministry of Order liasons, has left the Temple to a research facility in the south of the City. Only a few know of this convoy, though many cannot fail to notice it cruise overhead.
“Even fewer know that the Archive is not, in fact, there.
“Under security we almost couldn’t penetrate, in a single transport protected with nearly every spell and defense mechanism that could be hung upon it, the Archive is being moved quietly to a different facility on a different route entirely. I know that route. I know when the transport is going to be in exactly the right position for the Leviathan to perceive it. And you glitchers will power a unique ritual to allow our four starring performers to reach through those perceptions and bring the Archive here. Right here to where my people and I can recover it, stop further experimentation on it by the Cybercasters, and prevent them from unlocking the final malicious secrets they require to start their war.”
A clear, metallic chime filled the room. “The ritual must begin shortly. Is anyone here unwilling to join us in what we must do?” For the first time in the whole evening, the Mistress’s expression completely softened. She was no longer delivering instructions, orders, or demands. She was simply asking.
Nothing else could have been as effective. Under one purpose, without speaking, every glitcher in the room agreed to join the ritual, and every one knew their acceptance had been heard.
Mistress Messiér spoke with sincere gratitude. “Thank you. Thank you all. I thank you, and though it may never know it, the City thanks you.”
Command returned to her voice as another chime rang out. “Tonight, I create and induct you all into the Order of the Leviathan, for as long as you all live. We will accomplish the nearly impossible under the noses of the most powerful. And we will begin… with a dance.”
Light, airy music drifted across the crowd: ethereal, but including a nearly subliminal rhythm which could not be ignored. At the side of the room, a musician deftly operated a theramtone before a backing band; and Tam’s mind wobbled further when ze realized the player was none other than Euripides Zapnowski: the legendary cacophonist who’d gathered a massive following in the City by performing nearly the worst music imaginable.
Tam gave up. Clearly, ze’d entirely lost zir grip on reality and there was nothing left but to enjoy the ride.
The dance began. With no overt instruction, everyone began to move as instinct told them. Some of the glitchers danced alone, some in pairs, trios, or larger groups. Some glided gracefully across the floor, while some moved in jerks and in bounds. At the edge of zir perception, Tam could almost see how it all fit together into a pattern: a strange attractor stirring the ether in the room, concentrating and focusing the power of forty glitchers and the magic surrounding them.
Mistress Messiér called Tam, Amile, Carden, and Rayna over to one of the “windows”. The water on the other side was cloudy and fully of stirred-up sediment. “This is where we will put your talents to use. For the moment, I wish you to relax. You felt the power here when you first entered the hyperbrane. Now you four must certainly feel it building around you as the other glitchers dance. Don’t fight it, but don’t let it pass you over. Let it become yours, to use at your will.”
Tam tried to do as ze was told. Ze opened zirself up to the gathering magic, and felt a nerve-twisting buzz like a dozen energy drinks hitting zir at once. The sensation wasn’t pleasant, and it took a great deal of will not to reject it immediately. Tam could see similar uncomfortable looks on the other three.
With great effort, Tam distanced zirself from the discomfort and claimed the power as zir own. Zir glitch nearly fired off randomly, grabbing anything in reach; but in the same moment that Tam nearly lost control ze found it again. Suddenly, Tam felt as if ze could have pushed over a medium-size building in one piece. The power was there, and it was zirs.
Rayna had her palms to her temples. “Mistress,” she said slowly. “I think I see something. There’s an… an aerotruck, I think.”
“The spell is guiding and empowering you,” Messiér said. “You see what we need. Show us. Show us all, Dreamer!”
The cloudy water before them cleared and became as transparent as air. No, it was air. They were high above the city, watching a heavy-lift aerotruck cruise through the air. It was daytime, not midnight, and Tam remembered that the hyperbrane’s windows opened upon bith spaces and times. Ze wondered when exactly this heist was taking place, but it didn’t matter. The spell had zir, and ze had work to do.
Tam reached out tentatively. “The truck is moving too fast. Even with the additional power, I won’t be able to grab hold of the Archive once it’s revealed.”
“Exactly as expected,” responded the Mistress. “Carden, make the drivers your puppets. Have them slow the truck to its minimum speed.”
Carden looked almost pleased at the prospect. Their fingers began to twitch, and their hands moved to manipulate unseen driving controls. The lift rings moved from an up-and-forward angle to almost completely horizontal, sending their thrust vortices almost straight down.
“The drivers know something’s wrong,” they said. “They’re fighting me. With the spell energy, I can hold them, but I don’t know how long.”
“This won’t take long. It can’t. We can only control the spell for so long… but we should have plenty of time.”
Tam looked behind zir. The dancers were all moving more quickly, with greater energy. Ze swore ze could almost see the leaving aura trails in the disturbed, swirling ether. Some of the dancers were breathing heavily and showing other small signs of strain. Tam turned back to the brane window as Messiér spoke again.
“Quickly, then, while the Puppeteer holds the truck in place, let the Raptor open the way!”
All anxiety was gone from Amile’s face, and the smile there made her look indeed like a beast uncaged. With a screech and an outstretched swipe, Amile reached across space and time and tore half the side panel completely from the aerotruck. Reinforcing spells and defensive force fields sparked and flashed as they tried to stop the attack, but the combined power of the glitchers’ dance could not be stopped. A second swipe, and the damaged section of the panel fell away. The opening revealed a securely mounted steel box almost exactly like the one at the Mistress’ feet. A final swipe ripped the near side almost free from the box, revealing what had to be the Dragon Archive.
It was the same size as the dead crystal Tam had practiced on earlier, but this gem was alive, ablaze with records and information and history in an unguessable mix of formats and content. Tam had never seen anything like it; the dead gem bore only the most superficial physical resemblance. Same shape and size, but those were the least important elements.
“Please work quickly, Tam,” and with their heightened sensitivity, all nearby could tell that the Mistress was working hard to sound unconcerned. Tam risked another look back. The dance was swift now, and taking a clear toll on the dancers. Urgency entered the music, and the spinning trails of energized aura were no longer zir imagination. Tam turned quickly back to zir task.
The aerotruck wavered before zir across the gulf of the Leviathan’s perceptions. With the energy at zir command, this would practically be child’s play. Tam reach out for the gem –
And one of the four lift rings erupted in wrecked ligametal and vaporized force gems. Brown smoke billowed from the ruined thruster, and Rayna groaned with the effort of keeping track of the aerotruck as it fell from the sky.
“What did you do?!” Carden shouted at Amile.
“My attacks never came close to the lift rings! What kind of fool do you take me for? Tam, did you pull on the Archive or on the mana gems in the ring?”
Tam didn’t answer. Ze barely heard the distressed, angry shouts. Zir mind was so addled by shock after shock tonight that ze didn’t recognize the truck until this very second. Ze recognized the make, the model, the drivers, and the brown billow of smoke and knew the truck was high over Cat Sun Park. Tam knew that the Mistress’ spell had reached through the brane across space and time into the past – a moment when the archive was vulnerable.
A moment when, far below, a younger Tam and Cosi stood frozen as death came from the sky. A moment just before Tam save Cosi’s life and lost zirs to the glitcher’s curse.
“Tam, what are you doing? We’ve got moments left!”
Ze wasn’t sure who spoke. Probably the Mistress. It didn’t matter, because ze knew something she didn’t, something none of them did. If Tam focused with everything ze had right now, everything the dancers gave zir, ze could revcover the gem, bring the Dragon archive forward in spacetime…
… and allow the truck to fall on Cosi. Past Tam would glitch, but present Tam understood zir abilities and limitations far better. Past Tam couldn’t have pushed the truck out of the way but zirself. Past and present Tam had done so together, with the power of the glitchers’ dance. Only that combined power could have not only moved the truck but crushed it like foil, killing the drivers and shredding the remaining three lift rings.
Distantly, Tam heard cries from the dancers, and from the Mistress, and from the other three performers. The choice was clear: save Cosi and doom the City, or vice versa. Time slowed for Tam again, as if zir glitch somehow understood that ze couldn’t make it in the instant remaining.
The dance had reached a crescendo. No matter Tam’s decision, the spell would be over immediately. No second chances, no time-travel do-overs. Ze felt zirself almost drowning under the now tangible pressure of the magic and water and Leviathan around zir , and reached out helplessly for air.
There was no air.
There was Rayna, Carden, and Amile.
Something shifted in Tam. Tam asked, and was answered.
And for just that moment, Tam was no longer alone. At Tam’s almost subconscious demand, Rayna brought the image of the aerotruck into perfect focus an immobility. At that demand, Carden made the drivers trigger the cockpit safety systems in the second before they failed, flinging them free from the aerotruck to float down gently in emergency personal lift bubbles. Upon demand Amile produced something between a war cry and a feral scream and shredded the entire aerotruck into table-sized chunks; and Tam’s past and present glitch combined to push and pull and fling the debris out over the shore, to fall harmlessly into the ocean.
The spell broke.
The swirl of visible aura vanished from everyone’s sight, and the gathered magic drained away, leaving the still-plentiful power of the hyperbrane surrounding the exhausted dancers in their underwater ballroom. No one – quite – fell over, but everyone found a chair as quickly as possible.
Mistress Messiér marched over to Tam, seeming to tower above zir. She shoved Tam off zir chair, her face twisting with a mixture of fury and sympathy. “I was in the vision. I saw you here, and I saw you down there. I felt you save your sister. I’m not even angry that you spoiled my plan and wasted all the work I did and the near-torture we put to everyone here.
“But millions of people, Tam. Maybe the entire City! With the Dragon Archive in our hands and out of the Guild’s, we might have been able to stop the war, or at least some of the death. You just literally sacrificed the future to ease your past!”
The other glitchers in the room were definitely angry. With the exception of Rayna, Carden, and Amile who looked rather dazed, the dancers looked ready for violence at the slightest provocation… if they’d had the energy for it.
Tam said tiredly, “It’s not as bad as you think.”
“What in Void’s name could you possibly mean?”
“I arranged for a delivery. Look over at your demonstration.”
Mistress Messiér looked to the side, where the drape still stood, the pedestal and torn box both lay on their sides… and the dead data gem was dead no longer. Swirling in red and purple, with touches of amber and streaks of sickly blue Tam didn’t like much; there sat the sample data gem Tam had pulled from the box earlier.
“You… you have the better of me, Tam. That does not happen often.”
“Every window in this brane opens onto someplace somewhere else, right? That means all these windows transferring information from elsewhere to here. You said earlier tonight it was possible to ask favors of the Leviathan. With its help, Rayna sent her dream into the archive, Carden manipulated the file protections, Amile tore a pathway through the ether, and I Pulled the data from the Archive into the expired gem.
“I only regret none of us is a data-spinner. With all that power behind us, we might have been able to decrypt some of those files for you. Either way, the original is a shattered mess now. The Cybercasters’ Guild is in for a bad afternoon. Was in for a bad afternoon. You know what I mean. Hyperbrane stuff. I guess my timeline is a bit broken now; but in here, I’m not sure that matters much.”
The Mistress lowered her voice. “Tam… just how were you able to talk to the Leviathan?”
Tam whispered back, “To be completely honest? I’m not sure.”
She actually grinned at zir. “Thank Void. I wasn’t when I did it.”
– – – – –
Tam stepped from the open tentacle, onto the beach near Cat Sun Park. It was early morning.
Everyone else from the party had already left the Leviathan through one orifice or another. Mistress Messiér had stayed behind with her casters and staff to tidy up and to make sure their brand new copy of the Dragon Archive made it safely to their own facilities. Apparently transbeams weren’t an option, and honestly Tam didn’t really care about the details at this point. The Mistress had sternly informed the assembled glitchers they were under no pact of secrecy at all; who’d believe them? Even the Prime Cybercaster himself wouldn’t be likely to do so.
For the first time after a job, Tam had traded personal contact info with zir partners. Rayna, Carden, Amile, and ze had things to talk about. And it was time for Tam to look up Cosi and see if maybe, just maybe she meant what she’d said to zir about glitchers all that time ago.
Tam watched the sun rise over Managlitch City. Ze didn’t have the urge to break a single bit of it.