Escapism I
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rating: +23+x

Chapter I

by Faeowynn Wilson




Mausoleums reach into the boiling, crimson sky; the dead no longer fit underground. Violet waters crash and tumble at the base of the granite skyscrapers, and land breezes carry smoke and ash from the city to encrust their eastern sides. The sands of the beach are black and slick with oil, no longer a collection of grains but instead a soup of rock and plastic, from which men in drenched yellow suits load the trucks of corpses onto rusty vessels. Others warm the engines and test the ropes. The ocean threatens to throw their boat onto the shore — she does not wish to be sailed, but Alison can't remember the last time she did.

The sextons are little more than shadows through the smog, but Alison can picture them just as vividly as if she were right next to them. She can hear the orders of the captain, the mortician, yelling to strap the stiffs down, to store them under the benches, to pack them wherever they might fit. The camaraderie one felt, peering through the black visor into the eyeless masks of all those other people wearing those same black visors. The brushing of those yellow gloved hands against other yellow gloved hands. Not in years has she approached the tombships close enough to see them, but she doesn't have to. Silhouettes are enough.

"Chao! Get on deck, we're going!"

She snaps out of her daze, and pulls the lightweight plastic coffin onto the appropriated scavenger-ship. "Are we pushing off?"

"Were you listening to me?"

She nods, and wipes a slurry of greenish-gray rain from her goggles. The coffin is hauled down into the lower deck, where two other aquadieners sit on caskets to keep them stationary. Alison takes the hint and doesn't bother to find space to strap her own down, instead making a bench just as they had. One removes his goggles and reveals blazing orange eyes, at which the other raises eyebrows.

"What?" he responds, muffled though he is by the filter around his mouth. "No rain below deck."

Goggles shrugs and averts his gaze. "Your call," they say.

"My call's right," Orange-eyes mutters.

A horn blows, and the three slide their arms through green straps on the wall, tensing and instinctively beginning to grab for tied-down objects nearby. A voice yells from the top-deck, but rain and surf drown it out completely. The words, however, are known to all: "Brace yourselves, hold onto anything!"

As a final signal that they are well-and-truly setting sail, the hatch to their chamber is closed and locked above them by some unseen entity. It is hard to tell through the filters, but the trained ear of Alison can make out the deep breaths from both of her compatriots, attempting to calm themselves down. She sees their friction-mitts pulled so tight around their hands that she barely has to picture the white-knuckled deathgrips they are trying to hide. A part of herself, though she has tried time and time again to suppress it, experiences a venomous pleasure in being partnered with fresh sign-ons.

"New?" she asks. She remembers that when she was new, talking helped cool her nerves.

Goggles nods. Orange-eyes just looks at her.

"It's not as bad as you think. I've personally sailed on this ship ten times. She's seaworthy."

"Uh-huh," Goggles snickers. "As seaworthy as any vessel. Have you read Alexandria's statistics on sunken vessels?" He shakes his head.

"You can't trust that shit," Orange-eyes bites.

"Sure you can —"

"No, you can't trust that shit!"

"You didn't let me finish. Sure you can, you just can't trust the listed reasons they sink. Right?" He looks to Alison. "Right?"

The boat starts to lurch forward, and Orange-eyes' grip doubles in strength. For a moment, all conversation ceases, and every muscle in every body clenches, tenses, and stresses. Even Alison's, if to a lesser extent.

"Don't worry," she tries to console, "it doesn't get bad until a mile out from shore."

There is no response. Goggles starts to look at the floor, likely to take his eyes off the stacks of coffins that look like they could topple over at any moment.

"I ain't scared of the waves," Orange-eyes mutters.

The boat begins to rock back and forth on the sea of mauve, though from inside all that is visible are the zipped-up plastic coffins, the green straps, and the steel of the floor all illumined by dim blue fluorescent tubes tucked between the pipes on the ceiling.

"Am I right?" Goggles tries again. "Let me put it a different way. You been shot at before?"

Alison takes a deep breath. She is about to respond, but Orange-eyes doesn't let her.

"I've been shot at before."

"You have?"

"Yeah," the bridge of his nose scrunches up, "I have. First time out on the ocean. Can't be too uncommon. It ain't scavengers. Those shits don't got firearms like that. They don't got boat-breakers like that. That's straight from the top. Smog covers our tracks? We're technically allowed? Bullshit. Subverting their system? Never allowed. Never, ever fucking allowed."

There is a bang as the ship hit its first batch of turbulence. Turbulence? Like calling spiders insects, the term doesn't technically apply, and yet every diener uses it. What better describes that feeling, like the boat was suddenly plowing through rocks? Like holes were pocking its sides as fast and as frequent as rain peppers a roof.

"So you're not so new," Alison continues.

"Not new. Just knowledgeable. How often you get shot at, hmm?"

"Not often. What's your name?"

"Birch."

"Birch?"

"Yeah. Like the tree."

"Never seen one."

"Me neither."

The three are thrown from side to side, sometimes nearly coming off of their seats. Goggles leans as hard as he can against a stack of coffins to his right. Alison takes notice.

"You?"

He waits, expression unreadable beneath the goggles and filter. He looks between Alison and Birch. "Leon," he says. "Leon."

"You new, Leon?"

"I'm new."

"Why're you here?"

He shrugs. "Every way you can, you know?"

The words transport Alison to another place, that day when she saw the pamphlet slid under her apartment door. She'd heard about them, but never gotten one herself. What network must they have, to know exactly who to target and when? She'd never heard of anyone getting a pamphlet and not reacting exactly how she had. She'd never heard of a single person who'd thrown it in the trash. They're captivating — those words of power, those flaming buildings. She didn't tell anyone about it. Not until she'd followed the directions. Not until she'd become a diener.

"Every way you can," she repeats back to him. Birch nods.

"Coming up on D, male, coming up on D, male, do we have a D male?"

The correspondence is loud and clear to everyone on-board with a communicator. Due to the ever-limited supply, Alison is the only one of the three with such a link, but the crinkly sound, like people talking through crumpling paper, is loud enough for all of them to hear.

"No," a different but equally distorted voice responds, "continue to D female."

There is never silence on the sea, but the absence of speech is as close as it gets. One could be tricked that they were not a boat, but instead a plow that had run into a large hill of rocks and pebbles. At every moment, the vessel screeches and complains, like an animal suffering from a flesh-eating disease, or an aristocrat looking down to discover writhing worms wriggling out of his feces.

Birch glares at the wall, and listens for cannonfire. Leon stares at the ground, and tries not to vomit. Alison, glassy-eyed, sees nothing, but pays close attention to the passing of time and the comm-link by her left ear.

"Coming up on D, female, coming up on D, female, reaffirmation of stop?"

"Yes. April Donhower, mid-north of D female."

"Copied. Three minutes to our first stop."

"Divers," a new voice cuts in, "prepare for first stop."

Alison pulls the straps off of herself, and stands up with an ease that directly contradicts the sliding and sloshing and squirming of the ship. Birch makes eye-contact with her. Leon shifts his gaze to her unreasonably steady feet.

"That means me," she says, "see you in a few. Sorry if this one slides around."

Leon gives a thumbs up without making eye contact. Birch just turns his head and continues to glare. Though the floor is flat, she alternatively ascends and descends towards the hatch. The confidence with which she plods forward gives Leon the inkling that perhaps the saying of "sealegs" is less metaphorical than it might at first seem.

She clings to the ladder and knocks on the hatch, waiting only a moment before it unlocks and flings open, allowing a fresh sheen of rain to develop over her goggles. She rises to the deck, and silently thanks the diener that opened the hatch for her (though every inch of their body is covered, their height implies that they are one of the Strossle brothers) with a salute. They close the hatch behind her, and she is left to cling to the taut chains that create lanes throughout the deck to help navigate the slippery floor and thunderous waves. She pushes towards the back of the boat and opens the door, unsealed due to the far lower chance of flooding, to the diving chamber.

The transparency of the diving suits makes it easier to get to know the aquadieners inside. In this case, Alison set eyes on Orn and Sean. They wave at her as she closes the door, and begins to remove her coat, revealing the diving suit underneath. The suits are as bright of a green as they could possibly obtain, to contrast with the deep purple of the ocean, making divers visible to each other at all times. Alison unhooks a tank from the wall, and fastens it around her chest and waist, then reaching for and attaching a tube to go from her filter to the air. Sometimes Alison is amazed by the ingenuity of the implements — their multiple uses, their economy of resources — but at the same time she can't imagine it any other way. That which is normal is rarely considered extraordinary. That which is normal is rarely considered at all.

The boat slows. The dieners hold onto the walls to steady themselves (tighter than they had before), and then finally the ship stops. Over the communicators:

"Reached D, female, north-middle. Stopping for April Donhower."

"Twenty minutes to be on schedule. Divers, familiarize yourself with her face and build."

"No image provided," Orn says, "just description. Dark brown hair, skinny, average height, maybe five feet four inches they said, broken nose." Eyes were omitted because they are the first things to go.

"Cause of death?" Sean asks.

"Unknown, but recent. Should be on top," Orn says.

"Bloody perfect," Sean replies, and kneels down to unlock the circular hatch in the floor. "Remember, the tether is broken. No safety lines. Extra fucking careful not to get lost. Everyone keep everyone else in sight at all times, right? And we're swimming up after eighteen minutes, no matter if we find her or not. No time to waste."

"You got it," Alison and Orn reply in nigh-unison to their superior, who bears no title but seniority.

The hatch is thrown open, and the anarchic froth below becomes visible (and doubly audible). Sean unlatches the ladder laid on the floor, tips it so that it is fully vertical, and then pushes it down into the ocean, creating an easy in-and-out for the divers. "Alison, you going to put on flippers or not?"

"We don't have flippers for all three of us, Sean. We lost that pair along with the tethers on the same outing."

"You don't have your own?"

"No."

"Mmm," he says, and begins to take off his own flippers.

"No need to do that —"

"No, there is. Diving takes strength. I have more of it." He hands the flippers to Alison. She takes them, if hesitantly.

"Alright," she says, and puts them on.

"Good. Into the water."

Sean plunges in first, then Orn, and then Alison. Beneath the waves, the ocean is not quieter, but it takes a different tone. Instead of crashing and tumbling and colliding, it becomes a rumble, like that of holding your palm up to your ear if it was amplified ten times. Alison pushes through a layer of floating water bottles, wallets, plastic bags, shirts, cans, glasses, and other such miscellany, before emerging on the more-or-less empty other side. Sean swims at the exact same speed as her and Orn without the aid of flippers, which in turn swells Alison's respect for him. Ever since she began to dive she has respected Sean. Admittedly, that describes only the past two months, but the last three years have felt like an entire lifetime since joining the aquadieners.

They swim down, occasionally batting a piece of broken wood or a wad of plastic foam out of the way. As they plunge deeper and deeper, the water begins to change color. Soon, they are in a cloud of black. Not darkness, but a sickly membrane of greenish-black that descended like a fog. They are close.

And then they are upon it.

Sean is first, and Orn follows after. Alison arrives to the scene of them both swimming inches from the mound. The mass. The valley of dead bodies, in all different stages of decomposition, from which chunks of their flesh and liters of their blood color the water a decaying shade of black. None have eyes; the acidity of the water makes sure that they last mere moments beneath the waves. Laid on top of the rows of rot are chains, through which random limbs are stuck through to better keep the carcasses in place. The acidity of the water helps make sure that there is always space for new entrants.

Sean points Orn to his right and Alison to his left. Both nod, and coast along, trying to find a skinny brunette of average height with a broken nose. Eye color irrelevant. Cause of death unknown.

Alison's eyes pass over the endless dead. Her heartrate is steady, her blood pressure only heightened by the water pressure around her. Her head is clear. Her breathing is steady. Mangled faces and bodies pass in front of her goggles like bread behind the glass at a bakery. Any one of them might be April Donhower. On account of her recent death, Alison double-checks any fresher-looking corpse. Through the black mist, is that brown hair? Average height? A broken nose? Skinny?

She looks up to see Orn and Sean still searching, their neon green bodies drifting near the decrepit ocean floor. She goes back to work, and looks intermittently between her own path and her fellow aquadieners.

Then, Orn waves them over. Sean and Alison arrive to see him pulling at someone that matches April's description. Orn begins tugging, but the body seems to be caught on something. Alison moves arms, legs, and a head out of the way to try and see Ms. Donhower's legs. There is something tied around her ankle, but its source is obscured. It looks like it might be rope, but to see where it leads would mean removing several other bodies that are also held down by the chains. One, to April's left, looks bloated and ready to pop. Orn struggles further, but manages only to get April's torso out from under the chain, her ankle still keeping her down. Sean tries to communicate the situation, but is unable to through simple gestures. Instead, he places a hand on Orn's shoulder, and waves at him to stop.

April's body floats there, limply, arms up above her head like she's a flailing plastic advertisement. Sean reaches behind him, and unhooks a roll of waterproof tape from his airtank. He then plasters April with it — a strip for each arm, and then one on her forehead. The tape works like high-vis jacket; Even in the peripheral it appears to glow and draw attention. Orn nods, and they all three swim back up to the boat. The cloud of black fades into purple. They push their way through the layer of garbage, and reach the ladder to pull themselves back on the boat.

They splash out of the ocean, and its rumble once again turns into a churning, trash-compactor-like sound.

Sean goes straight to his comm-link, taken off before the dive: "April Donhower has been found and marked, keep her on the list for the next round out."

"Copied."

"Oh, and put that we'll need a knife to cut her loose."

"A knife?"

"Yes."

Alison pauses in anticipation. Knives have been hard to get as of late; every month or so there seems to be a new type of "contraband" that is more highly enforced than before. Alison hasn't seen a knife in weeks.

"Copied. Onto E, male."

Orn retrieves the ladder and closes the hatch. The three of them sit on a steel bench along the wall, and slip their arms into green straps to keep themselves steady.

There are hours more to go.


* * * * *


In the city, you can't see more than three feet in any direction. If you look up, all that is visible are the impressions of buildings, and if the sun is out, you might see a brighter spot of brown amidst all the smog. There are no homeless, and there are no beggars. The streets and sidewalks are intermediaries exclusively; filters can only last so long to direct exposure, and replacements are costly.

Alison remembers when her next door neighbor was evicted.

She tried to sleep in the hallway, and the landlord almost let her, but then the census came around. There was something of a dual-purpose to it. Every head in the building was another cut of the landlord's income. Feet were put down, and she went out onto the street. Alison had walked her to the door, asked where it was she was going to go. Steam coming from the top of her goggles told Alison that she was crying. "I don't know," the muffled voice came through, "will you come with me?"

They didn't know each other. The question was awful. Come with her? Alison barely knew who she was.

So she closed the door, and went back up to her room. Alison thinks back sometimes and wonders what she would have done differently. She wonders if there was something to do differently. In their coats, and their goggles, and their filters, you never recognize faces on the street except maybe by signature gashes or dents on somehow still-functional equipment.

Sometimes, when Alison sees someone just a little bit shorter than herself, she hopes that it's that neighbor, living here somewhere. That they found new income, that they found a place to live. With her own rent gradually increasing, and her own income gradually decreasing, Alison has invested her hope into that neighbor. Hope that eviction might not be death.

Alison reaches her building. She types the code into the front door, and passes through into the tiny lobby. It is barely large enough to hold six people. Alison trips over something.

Looking down, there is someone on the floor, sprawled. Their breathing is irregular. Their filter is missing.

"Hey," she says, and crouching down, "are you…"

The breathing stops. Alison grabs an arm of theirs, rolls up the sleeve, and presses fingers through her gloves onto their wrist. If there is a pulse, it's too faint to feel through the thin rubber. They've gone.

Poor thing, Alison thinks, must have figured out the code and thought the lobby had clean air.

On the off-chance that they are someone who lived here, Alison props their body into a sitting position instead of rolling them out onto the street, and tells herself that she'll inform the landlord at the first opportunity. Instinctively, she wants to bring the corpse back to her room, but there is surveillance here. She wonders if they will be another name to be fished out of the sea. An A, male perhaps.

She calls for the elevator, steps into it when it opens, and presses for the eighth floor. The doors close, and a hiss of air tells her that it's alright to begin taking off her filter. She disconnects the apparatus from her goggles, and then pulls back the hood of her coat to allow her to take them off. Long, straight black hair falls to her mid-back and over her shoulders. She takes off her gloves, and starts to twist it around her hands. Alison is strangely proud of her black hair. When she wakes up in the morning, she always finds her hands are tangled all through it. Combing it out is how she wakes herself up, and it is when she hides it in the hood of her coat that she finally feels like she is going outside.

The elevator dings, and opens to a tee in the halls. She takes a left, and slowly turns right for two minutes as the building bends. On the left, she finds her door. She unzips her coat pocket and fumbles the key out of it, as she suddenly notices a glow jutting out around her feet. It is slight, it is blue, and then it is gone.

Alison stops.

She gets on all fours, and tries to peek under her door, into her room. The slot is tiny, and she can't get any image. It looks just as dark as it should. She is suspicious. She's heard of people disappearing from their rooms. Is this how it starts?

"Hello?" she says into the door. No response.

Not that they would respond anyways, she thinks. More likely that light hit my window strangely, she concludes, and opens her door.

The apartment has two rooms; the bathroom, and then the one for everything else. A stove, and then a table, and then a bed. It is Spartan, but Alison has never heard that word. She takes a comforting exhale as she marks that everything is as she left it. Not a single thing moved. She takes off her coat, pins it up in the entryway, and steps out of the hall and towards the kitchen.

She fills a pot with water, fires up a burner on the stove, and then turns around, wondering if there is anything to occupy her time as she waits. For the moment, she decides to stare out the window. From eight stories up, the smog is thin enough that the city almost seems finite once more. Alison has never seen the end of it herself, but miles out, it looks like the buildings might get shorter. And if they got shorter, maybe at some point, they stopped being.

Once, one of the aquadiener's showed her a "map". She didn't know such things existed. Once she saw it, it made sense, but she's still not sure if she believes it.

Apparently, there were other cities. Apparently, there were things called countries, and continents. Landmasses. The pamphlet had hinted at a before and an after — that once, there might have been ways to "travel". Visit different places. Have "experiences". There was even a word it had to define: "tour". Alison had to admit, it all made sense on paper. If you kept walking in one direction, where would you end up? Still, the scale of it didn't make any sense. That same diener that showed her the map had also tried to tell her that there were places you could go where you didn't have to wear a filter to breathe. That was when she stopped listening.

Still.

If there really are places beyond the city — and why shouldn't there be? — then maybe that is where her neighbor ended up. Maybe, once you get evicted, you don't stay on the streets. Maybe, you pick a direction and just keep walking. Eventually you might even end up "somewhere else". Somewhere you don't need a filter to breathe. Somewhere… clean. Like the insides of buildings.

She stiffens. At the thought of the inside, her focus had shifted to the reflection in the window, and directly behind her she sees it. The bathroom door is ever-so-slightly ajar. She knows of herself that leaving doors open isn't among her habits. It is simply poor etiquette — plenty of buildings require doors to close for the air filtration to work correctly. Closing doors becomes ingrained once you've been yelled at enough times.

The bathroom door is in the entryway. The door to the apartment is beyond it. It clicks. The home intruder has taken a position between her and her only possible exit. There is no escape. She is trapped.

Time slows. What are her options? Flight is out of the question. Whoever it may be, they've left the bathroom door open so that they can attack her as soon as she passes by. Opening a door would take too much time. Of course, of course. They have no way to know that Alison knows they're here yet. She still stares out the window and pretends to take in the cityscape.

Breathe, Chao, breathe, she tells herself, there has to be a way.

Once her heartbeat slows some, and her hands shake just a little less, she realizes what she must do. The intruder plans to jump her. The only escape is to jump the intruder.

She waits in agony for the water to begin boiling so that she has a perfect excuse to go to the kitchen. Minutes pass by, sweat drenches her head to toe, but eventually it boils. She walks to the kitchen, pulls noodles out of her pantry, and pours them into the water. She opens the drawer full of her kitchen implements, and pulls out a stirring spoon and a fork. If only it were months earlier, she could have used a knife. But alas.

She closes the drawer, and stirs the noodles. In such high stakes, taking the time to stir feels like the stupidest move in the world, but the intruder has audio only. If their world is auditory, she must paint a soundscape that sounds absolutely normal.

And now, she simply has to go to the bathroom.

Alison has never been trained in combat. She has never had to defend herself. If you keep to the main thoroughfares in the city, the one semi-common threat — impoverished in need of fresh goggles or filters — won't dare to touch you. They keep to the backstreets, laying in wait for someone who has lost their way or is otherwise alone. Alison has never been a backstreets woman. All she knows is intuition and instinct. She prays to a higher power that it is all she will need.

She hides the fork behind her back. She walks at a normal pace, but each step feels like a minute. She can feel the edge — that soon, she will either be dead, or she won't.

She has no relations.

She has no close friends.

And she most certainly does not have enough money to become entombed in the offshore monoliths.

For her, there will be no aquadiener retrieval team. There will be no proper burial. Though she's swum through it ten times or more, never has she felt closer to C, female than she does now. Here. In her apartment. Approaching her own bathroom. With a fork.

Her left hand touches the handle. Another hand touches hers. Words might be said, but she can't hear them. In a blur, she brings the fork down, and the hand recoils. The fork bears blood, and Alison pushes through the doorway, into the bathroom. A bright, blue light shines right into her eyes, and she's suddenly blind. That does not stop her momentum. She crashes down, and feels the fork enter what might be a shoulder. There is a yelp, and the intruder pushes her off. Alison swings blindly, but her wrist is caught by a hand. As her vision returns, she makes out just enough of the assailant's figure to know where to kick.

Her back against the wall, her fork arm caught by the intruder, Alison's foot swings in, but doesn't have enough force to knock the stranger off-balance. Instead, she only yields another yelp, and a loud: "Stop!"

The words do nothing. She tries to swing with her other hand, just a fist, and it too is caught. In rage and panic, Alison repeatedly bashes the left calf of the assailant with her boot, but it does nothing to their position. They are above Alison, they are subduing Alison, they are in control of Alison.

There is only one weapon left to her.

She leans forward and bites their hand. "What the fuck!'" The intruder begins to pull back, and Alison only bites harder, worming their finger into her mouth, prepared to take it with her. The assailant is forced to reconsider their withdrawal, as pulling is met with tension pressed onto their finger. Alison waits for a swing to her head, but none comes. Her vision is almost back; she can tell the intruder is a woman (if the voice didn't already give it away). Someone with long, straight black hair.

"Alison! Alison, it's me! It's me, let go of my finger, for fuck's sake, it's me, it's me!"

Alison knows that a swing at her temple is the best move her opponent has. With control of both her hands, she's prepared to block the attack in the same way the assailant blocked hers. But no such attack comes. However, she isn't willing to give up the finger.

"Ha'r yu?" she asks through the wriggling worm in her mouth.

"Me? I'm, I'm you for fuck's sake! Why don't you have a mirror in your apartment, can't you tell that it's me? That it's you?"

There is a moment of heavy breathing. Her assailant is between her and the doorway. At some point, they switched positions, likely when Alison fell on top of her blindly. Alison, for her part, is sitting up against the wall, fork in her right hand, left hand holding the arm of the hand in her jaws, leaning forward in preparation to launch herself at the opponent. But there is no combat. There is no opening. With a few more blinks, her eyes begin to finally adjust. The woman… she has fair skin, but thin eyes and a flatter face than most. She somewhat resembles what Alison remembers seeing in the reflections on spoons, and forks, and what she can make of herself in foggy windows.

There is consideration. The intruder looks between Alison and the finger, which she has ceased to apply as much pressure to. Suddenly, it is over. Alison releases the hand and it shoots back like a bullet from a gun. Alison spits out a gob of blood onto the floor.

"What do you mean, me?"

"Jesus fuck. I'm you, dumbass. I'm you, plain and simple. I'm you from another universe."

"Universe?"

"Yeah, I know it's a lot to wrap your head around, but listen to me, I'm —"

"— going to the top, is where you're going. Either get out of my house, or you can get beaten again if you'd like."

"Alison, listen to me! Is your name Alison? Do you go by Alice?"

Alison stands up, and is sure to keep the fork within the intruder's view. "You're going to move out of the door and let me through."

"No, no no no… this has all gone horribly wrong, I didn't know you'd be home so soon, I was working out a way to introduce myself. Look, the air on your world is poisonous —"

"Your world?"

"— and I don't have any filters or… goggles or whatever you have, I was going to meet you on the streets but I couldn't, okay?"

"How'd you get in my house?"

"A portal."

"A portal."

"I can make another one, look —"

Alison begins to walk forward as if the intruder isn't there, and just as she planned, the intruder backs out of the way instinctively, right hand cradling her bleeding left one, and her eyes darting between where she's going, Alison's eyes, and the bloody fork in her hand.

"Give me one minute, okay? One minute to explain everything. And if you don't believe me, I'll leave. Okay? You'll never fucking see me again. That work? Does that work for you?"

Once they are out of the entryway again, Alison positions herself next to the phone on her wall. She looks between the phone and this person who may-or-may-not look a little bit like herself. "Fine, you have one minute. But any more than that and I call up top."

"Thank you, okay. I'm Alison Chao, but I go by Beatrice. I'm you, but I'm not from here. I'm from a coalition of you, we're collectively called the Black Queen. I wasn't there when the term was coined, but I think it's got something to do with our hair."

Alison reflexively reaches up to put her hand through her thin black waterfall.

"See? See? We're all a little vain about it. It's one of the constants. There are — no that will take too long. The point is, we're going around and pulling all these versions of ourselves out of their shitty situations and giving them better ones. We're like a family. And let me bet you, we're the only family you have, aren't we?"

Alison's fork-hand rests on the phone, but she doesn't pick it up.

"We are. That's another one of the constants. We're a band of orphans, Alison. We're all we've got. Think of us like missionaries. Eventually, we all go out and choose another couple Alisons from across the multiverse —"

"No, stop right there. What are all these words. Missionaries? Universe? Multiverse? Start making sense, fast."

"Fuck, you don't have those concepts? Look, your world. It's bleak. Have you noticed that? Look out your window! The air is too dirty to breathe, and it sounds like you've missed out on a proper education. We can give you that. That's why I chose you, Alison. That's why I'm here. You're in need of new surroundings. If you come with me, I can give you that. Okay?"

Alison looks to the clock. A minute has passed. Yet she doesn't pick up the phone. Not yet.

"You can take me places?"

"I can take you anywhere."

"How do I know I can trust you."

"That's one of the hard parts. I thought you'd have a mirror — a, a reflective —"

"I know what a mirror is."

"Okay, well, if you had one, you'd see it. We're identical, girl. Eyelash for eyelash, color to color, hair length to hair length, we're exactly the same. Maybe plus or minus a few scars."

There is a silence. Beatrice looks at the clock, too.

"See? See, there's, there's gotta be something in you that believes me."

"There's something in me that wants to believe you."

"And it's right. Listen to it, it's right."

Alison stares at the clock. Seconds tick by. The stove burns on. The noodles need to be stirred, but that feels like a completely inane concern. She looks back to Beatrice. By no means can this woman be trusted. There is no reason for it. The things she says are insanity. And yet…

Much like the map, Alison hopes that it is true. Somewhere beyond the city. Shores that aren't this one. Oceans that aren't purple. Smogs that aren't brown.

"If I go with you, can you show me places where you don't have to wear a filter to breathe?"

"Worlds full of them."

"And places where you can walk around without goggles — where you don't have to wear a coat in the rain?"

"I can show you places like that which fill continents, from coast to coast."

Continents. It wasn't a made up word. It existed. Someone used it.

Alison removes her hand from the phone. She reaches behind herself and places the fork on a counter, next to the stove.

"Show me."

"Okay. Okay, I'll show you."

Beatrice brings her left wrist close to her mouth, a chewed up forefinger dangling off the end of her hand. "Give us a portal, please. We're ready."

A point of light, bright white-blue, appears in the middle of the room and starts to shape reality around it. Though it is as small as a period on a page, there is a concentric sphere of total distortion, where the room ends and another, stranger place begins.

"You just gotta follow me into it, okay? It feels really weird the first couple of times. You can hold my hand if you —"

But Beatrice doesn't finish her thought before Alison steps through, her body twisting and spiraling into the pinprick of light.

Beatrice smiles. "You're going to take getting used to, aren't you?" She cradles her bleeding finger again, and steps through. The portal distortion ceases, the light ceases, the scene ceases. The room is back to normal. Minus some blood, you couldn't tell that anything happened in it to begin with.

The window looks out on a somewhere Alison never thought she could leave behind.




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