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Monday, October 23, 2017

009 The New Aleph - Chapter Eight

Nathan explores Threshold and runs into an old friend. Aramis visits the Remnants study group and runs into a new friend.


(And, check out this week's plug, Bay Weather, and how to see them performing live, Nov 1)


Aramis, breathing heavy and sweating, charged inside Jack and Ben’s Bakery’s front dining room. And immediately she was hit with a warm wave full of the scents of fresh breads and dough. There was a handful of people there, scattered around the three tables and five booths, eating sandwiches. A young man was standing by a mechanical cash register behind the bar, looking bored. Behind him a middle-aged woman was moving from station to station, checking ovens and readying pans.

The young man noticed Aramis and nodded. He still looked bored. “Can I get you anything?”

Aramis squinted an eye and looked around. She waited to catch her breath. “I’m here for a meeting in the back? I’m late, though.”

The man gestured to a hallway.

Aramis headed down it, hearing a deep voice from within become louder as she went. She followed the voice past a storage room and to an overflow room.

“What does this tell us about false gods? Gid’on defied Ba’al, knocking down and burning his altar, at great risk, because the Name commanded him. But look at what happened.”

Aramis found the door the voice was coming from and cracked it open. Fortunately, the speaker was at the back of the room, so only that one big man with long hair, saw her. He smiled and continued. “Gid’on isn’t struck with sickness or given bad luck. Instead, he’s confronted by the people of the city. They’re going to kill him!”

He smiled at Aramis, just a moment’s pause. Only a couple of the fifteen or so people sitting in the room turned to see what the speaker was looking at. Those that did turned around with enthusiasm, but turned back to the front with muted disappointment. Maybe they were expecting a friend that was late.

Aramis sat down in the very back, then felt her neck go hot as she realized that the guy from yesterday, who had stolen her job, Paul, the gorgeous boy with the mass of tightly circled hair, was sitting in on the meeting. She muttered “Crap” under her breath as she pulled her out copy of the Remnants from her bag. She didn’t need this distraction.

“Gid’on is saved by his father, who makes this amazing speech. Jared, you want to read verse thirty-one again?”

A chubby man, probably in his thirties, looked down at his copy of the Remnants, cleared his throat, and read with a deadpan, monotone voice. “Okay. Thirty-one. ‘But Yo’ash said to all who stood against him, “Will you content for Ba’al? Or will you save him? Whoever contends for him shall be put to death by morning. If he is a god, let him contend for himself, because his altar has been broken down.”’”

The leader with the long hair nodded at Jared. “Gid’on’s father knew who the one true god was. That this Ba’al was nothing but a wooden statue. Now, we can show the same kind of defiance in our own lives, by not being afraid of all the nonsense gods people nowadays believe in. Alephs, Irse, the TAW. If someone ever confronts you for saying you don’t believe in them, you can make a speech like Gid’on’s father. ‘Let the Alephs contend for themselves. Why are you defending them?’”

“Yeah, but,” A teenage girl up near the front, who was chewing on a pen previously, lifted up a hand as she interrupted. “Nobody worships the Alephs or the TAW. Most people just think the TAW were engineers. Or sorcerers. You won’t really find that many people who really think they became gods.”

The leader looked at the ceiling a moment. “Yeah, that’s true I guess.”

The guy named Jared cleared his throat, the same way he had before he’d read the passage. “Some people do. Worship them, I mean. I know some who practice asceticism, in secret, trying to trick the Alephs into giving them more ‘suffering points,’ so they can become preyvedes after they die.”

The leader laughed. “That is pretty crazy. So, they worship the Alephs, by trying to trick the Alephs into thinking they’re worthy of a second chance? And, basically waste the life they have right now?”

The teenage girl chuckled. “That’s not what Seven tells us to do. Nothing at all like his instructions for getting eternal life.”

Aramis watched all of them carefully. They continued to debate this, talking about the odd and mostly subtle ways different people showed homage to the Alephs and the TAW, as well as the managers: Irse, Merlin, Clausius, Cephas, Artemis, and Onweume. It seemed like the consensus opinion was that most people just followed the principles of their favorite of the TAW, since even in the most secular dispositions of the people, they were saint-like historical figures. They worshiped the idea the person represented, even if they didn’t worship the persons themselves.

Aramis also noted that Paul was just as quiet and focused on the others as she was. That was, until he finally did speak.


Paul had had enough of this. He didn’t want to offend these folks, because their hearts were so sincere, but they needed to get past this ridiculous ignorance. He waited for a moment of silence in the discussion and spoke up: “There’s a big problem with everything you’re saying. Though I suppose you could argue that practically it doesn’t matter.”

Everyone turned to him. He looked back at them, then heard a chair behind him squeak. He turned around and saw the blue-skinned girl he’d ran into the day he’d come to Hempstock…the one that he’d stolen the job from. He stared at her with his jaw hanging open for a second. She stared back, completely blank-faced and unflinching. He turned back to the rest of the room. “Uh, um. Oh yeah, the Alephs are real. So are the managers.”

Most of the people in the room didn’t look happy that he’d said this. Some turned away. Some frowned. One older woman smiled pityingly, as if she was eager to pull him aside and correct his silly statement. The leader had his regular, calm expression on his face, showing honest interest in what Paul had to say. Paul didn’t turn around to check, but he was pretty sure that blue girl was still staring at him with that blank face.

Paul frowned back at the group. “But they’re all just humans. People. Well, the Alephs are. I don’t know about the managers. I’ve only met one of them. She didn’t seem very normal. But there’s only one of her, and she can only be in one place at a time. The Alephs are just…people who have some sort of inside access into how the world works. But they’re not gods. They’re mortal and they make good and bad decisions just like everyone else.”

The room went silent again. He felt himself starting to sweat. He even looked back at the blue girl, whose expression, as he’d expected, was completely blank.

Finally, the ditsy-looking teenage girl up front raised her eyebrows and broke the silence. “You’ve met one of the managers?”

Dead silence as everyone waited for Paul to respond. He nodded.

The girl frowned. “Which one?”


The blue-skinned girl looked to the side and nodded. Almost everyone else turned away, rolled their eyes, or laughed softly. It was like he’d just told them he’d met Santa Claus.

No one was paying attention to Paul now, but he was still sweating and felt horribly embarrassed. The room remained silent, except for several people, mostly groups of two or three sitting further away from him, muttered to each other under their breath.

He heard the rich voice of the blue girl sitting behind him: “There’s another reason why, pragmatically, it doesn’t matter if the Alephs or managers exist.”

Now everyone turned and looked at her. Paul felt all his embarrassment switch to a mix of anger and confusion as he looked at their faces. Most of them looked her up and down, disappointment on their faces. Like she had just said something even more ridiculous than what Paul had said. But they were instead reacting to how she looked. Because she was a water preyvede.

Paul had a feeling that their skepticism concerning the existence of the Alephs and the managers meant that they had serious trouble sitting in a room with someone who was basically living, breathing evidence. Her very existence was an offense to them.

But she didn’t seem to realize this. She shrugged at their subtle, judging examinations and continued. “Gid’on was told by the Name to destroy the Ba’al altar and then Asherah fertility poles and use them as firewood. It didn’t matter whether Ba’al existed or not. It didn’t matter if Ba’al was actually some minor god, like the Ben El, some demon, or some figment of the peoples’ imagination. Gid’on’s dad could have been totally wrong, and maybe the Ba’al these guys worshiped was the most powerful spiritual being in that region. It didn’t matter, because the Name told him to defy him. Gid’on obeyed him. He trusted that the Name would protect him. He trumps everything else, no matter how powerful some lesser god might be. Same applies to Irse, Onwueme, whatever.”

The leader smiled and looked around at the others. “Nice answer.”

The blue girl turned to Paul and nodded. He nodded back, feeling his panic fading. The rest of the discussion continued without too much drama.


“You’re terrifying everyone.”

Nathan dropped the book he was holding onto the floor, the THUD echoing dully off two stories of wooden arches and shelves and books. His hands shaking from adrenaline, he cleared his throat and looked around. He was standing next to a display with a large book under glass in the reproduction of Trinity College’s Long Room library.

It was one of thirteen recreations of famous libraries that surrounded a lake, plus a few other buildings, including a castle up on a high outcropping of rock that had unofficially been considered a copy of the Hogwarts castle. All of this sat on an island with their properties linked by pretty roads and parks and a large railroad loop, serviced by a steam engine train.

The island was the Full Library, and was exactly what happened when you let nerds build the headquarters of a new universe.

This island was also one of the only accessible parts of Threshold that was outdoors. The room he was in right now was partially illuminated by a crescent moon shining in from tall windows. Through them Nathan could see the golden glow from the windows of the replicas nearby, none of which he remembered the names. One was a famous Chinese library, another a famous Japanese one, and another Russian. Well, and he could also see Hogwarts in the distance because it sat so high above the lake.

There were also a bunch of new buildings along the edge of the lake, and one floating, or standing, in the center of the lake, but none of their lights were on, so they were just dark silhouettes right now. They hadn’t been there the last time Nathan had been here.

Most of Threshold’s actual administrative and inter-universe linking facilities were made up of concrete hallways and compartments buried deep below a hidden fourteenth library. That fourteenth one, which was also from a fairy tale, like Hogwarts, was the largest single enclosure in all of Threshold. In all of Mebar, actually. The lobby for that library was located directly under one of the other Trinity College buildings. It was his next stop if he couldn’t find what he needed here.

He’d rather not go down there. It gave him the creeps. And he was already getting creeped out up here.

All these pretty buildings here on the surface, bathed in moonlight, seemed completely deserted, but somehow this one wasn’t dusty. That meant someone was visiting on a regular basis. It was probably the same person that was whispering into the air somewhere nearby Nathan right now.

He knelt down and picked the large book back up. “I hate being in this place alone…or THINKING I’M ALONE! When…I’m not.”

He again looked around, walking down to the middle of the Long Room. As he passed each pair of aisles he passed a pair of white marble busts that stared blankly at him. Still, theirs were the only faces he found. He made it to the end of the room, checking every aisle, finding no one.

He cursed and opened up the book, resting it on the glass of one of the displays. It was a live-update catalogue, which would tell him the general direction he needed to go in to find what he was looking for. As he flipped through the pages, he grumbled, wishing they’d just used a computer interface for this. Once he figured out which of the libraries he needed, he could use the computers in it. But first, everyone had to start with this book, and this book was always located in the Trinity College Library, because this was where the elevator from the concrete hallways deep below opened up. Because the Mebar project had been started by four white people.

“Food…food development in Mebar. Come on…” he sighed as he searched the pages.

“Everything related to Mebar is in Babel.”

“Damn it!” Nathan turned, red-faced, to see an old woman standing next to him, laughing. She smiled at him with big eyes surrounded by countless wrinkles. He still recognized her immediately, despite her advanced age. “I knew it was you.”

As she spoke now, no longer whispering, her softened Italian accent came through. It brought back memories of what she’d been like when Nathan had first met her when she’d been almost twice his age, but had still one of the most enchanting, lovely, and beautiful women he’d ever met. “It’s been a long time, Nathan.”

“Hey Carini. You know, libraries are creepy enough already without you doing some poltergeist routine.”

“Takes practice. Lots.”

Nathan breathed out loudly through his nose, then folded his arms and he stared down at the book. “I’m glad you’re the first one I ran into. I don’t know how everyone else would like seeing me.”

“I told you already. They’re all terrified, including all the little Alephs that have risen up to take away our seats on the Assembly.” She was still smiling, as if this was all a game. The lofty, joyful melody of her accent only enhanced the juxtaposition. “You must not have noticed. Look at your Aleph key.”

Nathan frowned, then dug out the maroon pen from a pocket. He turned it on and the screen flashed to life in the air, flashing red. He touched the screen and a picture of him appeared, with the words: “TAW NATHAN SANCHEZ HAS INFULTRATED THRESHOLD.”

All the blood drained out of his face. “Oh. Oops.”

Carini grabbed a plush, wing-back chair and pulled it over close to the glass display case. She sat down in it slowly, only betraying a little of her age. “Whatever advantage you hoped to have by keeping a low profile is gone now.”

“No kidding.” Nathan stuffed the key back into a jacket pocket. “Why haven’t I been dragged away, kicking and screaming yet?”

She shrugged. “Because I made the whole of this island a dead zone to all their intrusive sensors and magic. This library is my realm. They’ve locked down all the sensitive areas below us, though they haven’t thought to bother with Babel yet. And they probably don’t know what to do with you anyway. They figure you probably didn’t have time to build any of those nasty bombs like before, but they don’t know if you know how to use your deeper powers. The ones added when the Second Life laws were made. So, they just post guards all over and stand back, afraid to face you, hoping you won’t break anything.”

Nathan would ask about those “deeper powers” later. “Makes sense. But you knew where I’d be.”

Carini shook her head. “Nope. I’m just here. Someone has to dust all these lovely halls. Saw you come in with my eyeballs.”

Nathan leaned forward over the catalogue book. He looked and felt very tired. “Carini. Something’s wrong. Irse said something that makes me think that something happened. That no one knows about. Even you.”

Carini looked at the catalogue book with a shallow smile. She drew in a breath, then a whistle filled the air. It sounded like a tea kettle. “I’m going to make us some tea.”

“You have a stove in here? In a library. You do realize that books burn, right?”

She laughed as she stood up. “I told you. I live in here. One of my cots is set up right next to all the books on Churchill.”

Nathan laughed. “That does not surprise me at all.”


“So…what do you…do?” asked the teenage girl, Erica. She was frowning, as if afraid of the answer.

Aramis stared back at her a moment and then looked away. “Nothing right now. Trying to get a machinist job.”

Erica’s eyes widened and the rest of her face relaxed. “Oh! Oh, cool. I don’t even know what a machinist does.”

“Makes tools and specialty parts for machines.”

Erica smiled. “That makes sense.”

They stared at each other, smiling a moment. Aramis thought that maybe she should ask the question back, but just didn’t want to for some reason. Eventually, the two of them just walked away from each other. Erica trotted over to another girl who looked a little older than her.

Aramis walked over to a folding table set up against the wall that had some sandwiches. She grabbed a sourdough roll stuffed with turkey and provolone and munched down, closing her eyes and sighing in relief. When she opened them, the leader of the group was standing in front of her, smiling.

He held out his hand. “Kamel.”

She smiled and took it. “Aramis.”

He folded his arms and frowned, looking at the ground. “I gotta say, it’s great to meet a preyvede that not only believes in Seven, but knows the Remnants really well.”

Aramis wanted to say, “Why? Why are you saying it like that? Why are you assuming all preyvedes are sex-craved heathens that killed themselves and don’t deserve a second chance? A second chance that a bunch of corrupt self-appointed demigods gave them?”

She wanted to kick a hole in the wall and tell these people that they were a bunch of bigots that didn’t show any of the true love of Seven. That they were all shallow, pathetic xenophobes that barely knew anything about the Remnants. But she swallowed it all and instead said, “Yeah, I didn’t have a lot of people I could talk to about my faith in the commune. It wasn’t easy.”

Kamel shook his head. “Can’t imagine. I applaud you for sticking it out. It looks like you’re better for it.”

Aramis nodded, accepting the compliment, even if it was dripping with condescension. She was still pretty angry, thought Paul being here was probably a part of that.

Aramis looked at the row of sandwiches. She realized that Kamel had probably paid for all of them. It made her feel more obligated to feign interest. “So, are you a pastor? Teacher?”

He nodded. “I run a Saturday Remnant study at a community center east of town. If you ever want to come by, feel free. I know not…everybody here agrees about all the same details as you do. But that’s the beauty of real community built on Seven. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we can be united about what really matters.”

Aramis’ mind filled with more rants that she was pretty sure she shouldn’t say. Most of them were about how a true, unified community should probably not be weird to people because they have greenish-blue skin. Or even if they might have killed themselves once, for reasons they may or may not remember. It all sounded pretty cliché in her mind, which helped her keep herself from saying any of it.

Kamel smiled brightly and slapped her on the shoulder as he walked off. “Feel free to eat as much as you want!”

Aramis went back to looking at the sandwiches. “Well, this isn’t going so well.”

“I feel terrible.”

Aramis turned around to see Paul standing there. “Hey.”

He nodded. “I know I said all this already, but, I feel terrible about swooping in and taking your job before you had a chance to get it. You must have spent a fortune on all those tools.”

Aramis shrugged. “You did say all that already. I’ll find something. I mean, because I have all those tools, I could easily go freelance.”

“That’s an amazing set you have, though. It looked like they’re all Grennich.”

Aramis nodded. “Took a while, but I got everything at wholesale, so it was a lot cheaper than normal.”

Paul folded his arms. “Hey, maybe Cedric knows of another shop somewhere else it the city that needs work. I figure that if anyone knows he does. I mean, he even knew about this study group.”

Well, that explained to Aramis why Paul was here. “Maybe. I was thinking. If he picked up you right off the street, you have to be a lot more qualified than I am.”

Paul frowned. “Really?”

“What’s your background?”

He looked at the ceiling. “Ah, just…maintaining five-axis CNC machines and laser cutters for a medium-grade watchmaking shop.”

Aramis laughed. “Well that explains it. No one here works with anything anywhere near that precise. You’re like a—”

The smile on Aramis’ face faded. “Wait. They don’t have stuff like that over here.”

Paul’s face fell. “Yeah. About that. You know how I said I’ve met one of the managers? Well, it was only a few days ago.”


“That’s it? That’s all you know?”

TAW Rossa Carini and Nathan were sitting on opposite ends of a red velvet couch in one of the cozy reading rooms of the Trinity College replica, drinking the tea she’d made. “I know something happened. I know the quality of many things increased exponentially.”

“Like tea tasting correct for the first time ever.”

Carini pointed a slender finger at Nathan. “Music was the big one. We quickly figured out that Mebar’s biggest weakness was replicating the subtleties of musical instruments. Which is one reason why such a strong culture of venerating twentieth-century music recordings formed, because we thought the recordings from that era would always be better quality than anything we could ever make. But now, a beat-up, old stand-up piano has all the infinite levels of quaintness and charm that it would have on Earth.”

Nathan frowned. “But those crappy wraps and sandwiches that we used to create out of thin air, during the first few years here, those are still here. And they still taste like cardboard. Exactly the same. How the hell is that possible? How could both be true?”

Carini set her mug down on the ground, then leaned toward Nathan with her hands folded. “For centuries, I would keep myself in stasis for all but one week out of every year. Mebar was my vision, so I wanted to see how it would progress. But then, after something called ‘The Silencing,’ everything changed. The biggest one is in something you’ve already seen, but probably didn’t notice.”

Nathan lowered his voice. “What?”

Carini leaned in close and spoke with barely more than a breath. “Irse.”

Nathan leaned back a little, feeling almost uncomfortable with their faces so close together. “What about her?”

Rossa somehow spoke even more silently than before. “She’s human now.”

Nathan fully recoiled back. “That’s…impossible. She manages the connection between the Essesin and the World Can, right? No human could do that, even if you somehow hooked them up the way she is. I mean, I remember being at the meeting when we decided on her personality. Not that she followed any of our original ideas. She always was more human than any of the other mangers, but…that’s just a gestalt we’re forcing onto something. Like a piece of shadow art made out of random bits of stuff arranged in just the right way.”

That wasn’t Nathan’s metaphor. One of the other TAW, one of the actual smart ones, had told that to Nathan.

Carini’s pose didn’t change as she shook her head. “She is human now. I haven’t the heart to tell you why I know, but I know. I’m more sure of it than I’m sure I used to be a young, beautiful woman.”

Nathan smiled nervously, thinking about how they were both technically over eight hundred years old. “You know she’s human, but you won’t tell me why you know she’s human. Do you know how she became human?”

Carini finally leaned back, straightening out her back, her eyes widening. “I don’t know. I think it’s all been burned.”


She nodded. Her voice turned darker: “All of the answers to all the new secrets. An entire wing of Babel. Gone.”

“How could anyone burn—”

“The world changed!” Carini’s face filled with wrinkles as she said it. She then looked away as if she’d just heard something. Or was trying to remember something. It was hard for Nathan to tell. “The world changed and they could burn things inside Babel. Irse doesn’t let them burn things in there anymore. And I do not let them burn things here anymore. Still, they’ve done far worse damage.”

“Like what?”

Rossa glowered at Nathan. “After everything was settled, after we’d moved everyone we could move, we got rid of those heavy doors at the Narthex. We let people into Threshold. They could wander to any worlds they wanted. They could make new worlds if they wanted. None of that was secret. This whole island, all these libraries, were filled. With children.”

Her eyes turned red and she turned away. “Mebar had some really good years. You missed them. They built museums here, around the lake. It’s too dark right now to see them, but there’s an aerospace and nautical science museum build into a nuclear submarine. There’s a botany museum build under a giant waterfall not far from the castle.”

“You mean Hogwarts.”

Carini grimaced a second, then continued. “There are seven museums. But, in the center of the lake, they built an island. An island in the center of an island. Of solid marble, sculpted to look like a fully-rigged sailing ship. Three towers rise from it, massive white pyramids shaped like wind-filled sails that are filled, story after story, with Earth’s most precious paintings. The Full Library, this entire island, became a symbol. The outer ring of the thirteen libraries? Knowledge. Then, along the edge of the inner lake, the seven museums. Science and technology. Then, in the center, Art. After the three tenants of Korean philosophy: Line, Speed, Beauty. The raw knowledge, the application that facilitates life, and the transcendence.”

Nathan waited. Carini took several difficult, slow breaths before continuing. “Now, the museums are overgrown and infested with damned monkey spiders.”

“Monkey spiders again,” Nathan mumbled under his breath, shivering. Again, he chose to not ask what they were.

Carini sighed, but tight wrinkles cracked her forehead. “There are only so many hours in a day. I can keep the main rooms of the libraries and some of the rooms in the art museum from being buried in dust and cobwebs, but not everything. Keane Milton is here too, and sometimes they help. Mostly they just haunt the museum of industrial science. They enjoy making the pipes creak and filling halls with steam and whispering the date of your birth in your ear and then vanishing. They think it’s a game.”

“What—” Nathan wasn’t sure if he wanted to ask about Milton either. He was worried the answer about what had happened to her was worse than the one about the monkey spiders. He remembered Irse saying that one of the TAW had split into two people. It could be that was why Carini was referring to Milton in the plural.

Then, all of a sudden, Carini looked a little lost. The sharpness of her eyes was gone. But then she noticed the look on his face and smiled. “I lost my discipline a while back. I tired of living only a week per year here and there and sleeping the centuries away. I’ve faded somewhat.”


She leaned in as her forehead tightened and her voice lowered. “I’m very old. When we become very old, we forget things. Our faces and our minds fill with wrinkles and cracks. But that’s not the biggest problem. Things become especially bad for us, the TAW. The Assembly does not tolerate such things. Not after…”

“After what?”

“I don’t like thinking about it, but,” she shook her head, her eyes on her teacup. She remained that way for a while. “Do you remember how pretty I was?”


She looked away from him and spoke as a matter of fact. “I remember being pretty. I remember Tanaka looking at me. He was so hungry, but I liked letting him stare. I tormented him for a long time. I don’t remember why.”

“You guys built the entire world of Pan together. As far as I could tell, you two were lovers for at least a little while.”

“I remember the way you looked at me. But you were a child then.” She frowned and adjusted herself on the couch and took a drink from her tea.

She looked up and closed her eyes. She drew in a long breath through her nose, let it out through her mouth, and she changed. Her skin smoothed. Her wrinkles vanished. Her hair thickened and shined.

Nathan’s mouth dropped open as this happened, as she transformed from a woman that looked over eighty to a woman that looked twenty. He jerked back as she turned to him, smiling with gorgeous eyes. He wanted to ask how she’d transformed, but felt too uncomfortable.

She looked at him, up and down. “You look younger than you’re supposed to also. I don’t know why you’re judging me. We could pretend we’re both teenagers, if you want.”

“Carini. Are you okay?”

She looked at him again, but she wasn’t smiling now. Lines formed between her eyes, as if she was worried about something. “I’m considering making you bond with me. That would keep you safe, at least. That’s what I’d tell myself as I trapped your free will in a velvet cage. I’ve done it before. I can. So I do.”

Nathan just sat there, confused. Carini twirled a finger through her short hair, her other hand unbuttoning the top two buttons of her blouse. She relaxed on the couch, reaching a hand out to touch his shoulder. His body filled with fire. It was a weird mix of being creeped out and aroused. He was mostly hoping Carini would do something even stranger so he could be turned off. The whole thing was very awkward.

There was also something uneasy in the way she was lounging and moving. It felt forced. Or resisted. Her voice was soft as she spoke without looking at him, her thumb rubbing against his shoulder. “I could do it, you know? I’m stronger than you. I can make you touch me the way I want, make you whisper your love. The never-no bond the preyvedes have at their disposal is a teenage crush compared to the power we TAW gave ourselves. Years ago. There was the one boy that came to visit me, and—”

And as she stared off into space, looking sad, the lines of her frown settled into her face. Her whole body seemed to relax and be more at ease as she transformed back into her aged self. It made Nathan sad to watch it, but he was still relieved.

Nathan waited a moment. He had the most unnerving combination of fear and elation and horniness he’d ever experienced in his entire life, but at least it was all fading away now. He needed to get her back on topic. He took in a deep breath and cleared his throat. “Carini.”

“Yes,” she said, looking at him with wide eyes. Her tone and expression looked more lucid.

“Do you think Irse would tell me what happened if I ask her?”

Rossa studied his face. She looked to be the most lucid thing in the universe in that moment. Then she looked terrified. “Did I just—”

Nathan shook his head. “You didn’t do anything. Well, you touched my shoulder. It was pretty weird.”

“Shit. I’m so sorry.” She put her head in her hands. “What was your question again?”

“Irse. You said she knows what happened to Mebar. Do you think she’ll tell me if I ask the right questions?”

Carini let her hands fall away from an embarrassed face. She noticed her blouse and rebuttoned it. “Perhaps. But that’s not what you should be primarily concerning yourself with. Irse will not betray you, but she also cannot protect you. You need to ask her exactly why she freed you from your sleep. And you need to remain unseen.”

Nathan stared back at her a moment. “Why?”

“The Assembly will do everything they can to capture you. They want your seat.”

“My seat.”

She nodded and reached out to take both of his hands in hers. “They will offer you a deal. They will offer great gifts and powers. You lost your brother before we could bring him over, right?”

Nathan nodded.

She frowned at a nearby wall. “The Assembly is a collection of dickhead politicians with less than half a brain between the lot of them. But they have terribly clever people at their disposal. They can offer you family members, lovers, back from the dead. They’ll claim they found them, rescued them, put them in stasis for a rainy day. You must not give in to them. Your seat is beyond value. Especially now.”

Nathan looked down at their hands, hers white-knuckled in their grip around his. “What can I do with a seat on the Assembly if they’ll just capture me the moment they find me? It makes it pretty difficult to vote on anything.”

She shook her head. “You went to sleep before we created the magics. You don’t know. You have the authority to make and unmake people, cities, and worlds.”

Nathan frowned. “Not in that Aleph pen, I don’t. I can make a lot of random stuff, but I can’t build worlds like we used to.”

“You can also turn yourself into a dragon now.” She flitted a finger in the air as if this was a minor point. Her forehead tightened up and she opened her mouth, but for a moment she seemed too overwhelmed to speak. She calmed and said, “It would be better for you to live a life of silence, hidden. The Auditors cannot find you, but—”

Her eyes lost focus again. Nathan waited. She looked to the side, drew in a slow breath, and pulled her hands away from Nathan’s. “They’re murderers and criminals, holding the powers of gods. And half of them are mad, as I am. Well, not exactly as I am, but still. They do not tolerate madness in the Assembly, but some are able to hide it for a time.”

Nathan stood up, picked up his tea, and paced a little way away from her. He turned and faced her, holding his teacup in both hands. “You said you could stop them from doing anything up here, but they might be able to find me down in Babel.”

Carini’s eyebrows shot up. “The secret of how I know Irse is human is hidden in Babel. How she became human is not. But the questions you need to ask her are down there.”

Nathan shook his head. “I hate going into that maze.”

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