Working Wonders

Working Wonders



10 September

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada

"The first thing you need to understand is that there's two of me."

"Okay," Udo nodded. She sort of understood already. She wanted to understand more.

"One of them can see you, and one of them can see an empty hallway." Reynders narrowed her bleary eyes — she wasn't wearing her glasses, for some reason — as though momentarily uncertain which sight she was seeing. She apparently decided in favour of their motley group. "I'm the one who can see you. The one who can see you can talk to you. The one who can't talk to you can see you too, sometimes, but she doesn't want to because she knows you're not there. Where she is."

"Oh," said Brenda, "boy."

Reynders brushed a messy lock of orange hair out of her eyes for the dozenth time. Her body didn't change in the ADDC, actively resisted and eventually reverted any changes being consciously made to it, but in her constant state of nervous paranoia she was doing a bang-up job of making herself look like she'd been through several sequential wringers. "I know there's a better way to describe this, but it's very hard to focus. Bear with it. I hate being like this a lot more than you hate hearing it, trust me."

Brenda had crossed her arms the moment Reynders started speaking, and hadn't uncrossed them yet. "You're asking me to trust you, after claiming to exist in two separate universes simultaneously."

"I think what she's saying," Udo corrected, "is that it's not really simultaneous?"

"And that they're not really separate," Reynders nodded. "The two of me are only the one of me. It's not multiversal. It's something else. This me has an… agency of focus, and the other me does too, but sometimes we overlap because we really aren't different at all. It's not happening all the time, it's just happening sometimes. And I think it's happening to me a lot more than it's happening to her."

"Are you sure she's even real?" Imrich had been quiet through the introductions and opening pleasantries. He'd never been big on meeting new people, and his time alone in the tunnel had intensified that tendency. "Maybe she's only… potential."

Udo caught his eye. "Meaning?"

Reynders flicked the pencil attached to the thread attached to the window which allowed her voice to be amplified into the corridor. It began making sine waves in the air. "Meaning the other me might be… me if things hadn't changed, when they changed."

"What things changed?" Brenda, Udo was coming to understand, was sharp as a tack. She wasn't going to let these vague allusions go uncommented-upon. "What are you talking about?"

Time for exposition. Udo tried to make it as concise as possible. "The breach in 2002. It did something to the timeline."

"It's a pivot," said Reynders.

Brenda glanced at her in acknowledgement, then glanced away. She'd been avoiding the other woman's eye contact, as if crazy was catching. "What's a pivot?"

"A timeline branching point." Reynders made sweeping linear motions with her hands, punctuated by finger-stabbing points. "They're purely theoretical, or at least I think they are. Timeline studies are strictly controlled, and even I don't have clearance to understand them. But pivots aren't supposed to work like this. They're not supposed to be retroactive, and this one was. Whatever went wrong got walked back a year, from 2003 to 2002."

"I understand absolutely none of this," Brenda nodded.

Reynders huffed in impatience. Udo had never seen the woman impatient. She was, not by nature but long, long nurture, the most patient person at Site-43. Under normal circumstances. "The long and the short of it is that there was a time-altering event in 2002, and it recurred in 2003, and the 2003 version happened differently due to new variables, and those differences became part of the 2002 version. The timeline branched." She clapped her hands together, then drew them apart, holding the palms parallel.

"And you think you can see both branches?" Brenda's voice was equal parts awe and disbelief. She'd lost a lot of her hardboiled vernacular too, Udo realized. Defence mechanism?

"I'm in a weird place." Reynders glanced around her sparse surroundings: exploded incinerator, high-tech 1940s monitoring panels, old steel lab furniture, a few cabinets and counters, all sorts of technical junk and papers scattered willy-nilly. Outside the glass, on their side, was a panoply of sophisticated modern equipment allowing her to access just about every system in the building, and control a great many of them. Some of it had been installed back in baseline, and some of it was new. There were even leads hooked up to the glass, so she could type; Udo was certain she'd never seen anything like that before, and wondered what the story behind all the extra equipment was. "Not just physically, but temporally," Reynders continued. "This room is saturated with antichronons. I'm temporally static. Whatever it is that happened, I think yes, I'm just talking to myself, thank you," she swatted the air irritably, "I think it's having trouble happening to me because of my unique situation. I exist outside the timestream, to a certain extent. I'm like a temporal Deepwell, pocket-sized."

"Can you send a message?" Udo asked.

"No." Reynders shook her head violently. "No. Have you seen Ghostbusters? They brought me Ghostbusters to watch, once, and that's when I invented spectremetry. There's a really good line about streams, and whether you should cross them." She bonked her head on the glass for emphasis. "You should not."

"Meaning you don't want to contaminate baseline?"

"Oh, yeah. For sure. I wouldn't be so picky about this place." Reynders sniffed. "This place is terrible, it can blow up."

"Can we use it some other way? Your connection?" Imrich's eyes were almost as unfocused as Reynders' were, but he didn't need glasses. He was thinking.

"Might be able to," Reynders agreed.

"How?" Brenda asked.

"If the other me figures out what's going on, which she should, since she's me, she might be able to pick up information from her timeline. Technical things. Things I'll then suddenly know, via entanglement. Things we can weaponize."

"Against the attackers, you mean." Udo felt her pulse quicken.

"Right. "

Brenda uncrossed her arms and interjected: "Alternatively, we could put our vaunted genius here to the test on the problems we already understand."

Udo turned to her. "Go on."

"I mentioned the radio tower."

"The comms array?" said Reynders.

Brenda shrugged at her. "Sure, I'm not a tech. But they spent a long time fucking around with that thing a few months back. Seemed important. And the people they left behind, they're still hanging around it as far as I can tell."

"What do you think they're doing with it?" Udo asked.

Reynders tapped the glass to get her attention. "It doesn't really matter, does it?"

"Why not?"

"Because whatever they're doing, we want them to stop, and more importantly we can use the array to resume communication with the rest of Site-43. If we can hijack it."

"And assuming there is still a Site-43," Imrich remarked darkly.

Udo raised her right hand. "I move we adopt any assumptions that keep us from giving up and killing ourselves."

"If your bar for suicide is that low," said Brenda, "I think you might need to adjust your expectations for the apocalypse."


After a few hours' consultation, their captive genius produced a plan. It was a complicated plan, and both Imrich and Brenda immediately asserted that under no circumstances could it possibly work.

It relied almost entirely on two factors: Reynders' boundless conceptive capacity, and Udo's ability to branch so far beyond the known limits of her thaumaturgy that no budget board would ever have approved the idea.

"There's a third factor, actually," the ancient acroamatic abater told them once the whole thing was laid out plain and simple.

"Which is?" Udo had the sense of a very heavy shoe about to drop. When she heard the answer, her stomach dropped instead.

"Whether we can survive in here for about a month, because that's how long this is going to take."


11 September

The early stages of the plan involved the acquisition of prodigious quantities of granular material. This was primarily a question of exploration; almost every room in AAF-D had something they could use. It was packed full of all sorts of caustic stuff for the abatement of all sorts of holocaustic other stuff, and most of it could be repurposed for their needs. Reynders was figuring out how to explain the relevant processes in a way Udo could understand, or else how to teach Udo to understand things on her level — Udo herself had doubts about this second approach, but the little lunatic behind the window was energetically hopeful — while the three of them did the grunt work.

Or rather, that had been the case for the first day. After they woke up in the cramped bunkroom designed for the use of late-night visitors to the ADDC — keeping Reynders company was a secondary task for any personnel so inclined and with gaps in their schedules, and accommodations had been made to make it easier — they'd been told it was time to split up.

"I need Dr. Sýkora first," Reynders said. "The design calls for an obscene amount of probabilistics."

"I don't have my doctorate." Udo was sure Imrich had been about to finish his sentence with 'yet', and the way his crest fell even further than usual told her that he'd just realized there were probably no more degree-granting programs left to suit his particular needs.

"Nonsense." Reynders slapped the window with her palm. "You're the world's leading expert on the weird thing you can do, which is a source of information only you can access and interpret. You're a Doctor of Predictive Thaumatocasting, as far as I'm concerned. Be a pioneer. You think all those other sciences popped into existence with certification committees attached?"

With some grumbling about leaving the big, strong man behind to talk semantics while the two slight-framed women went to collect big heavy sacks, Udo and Brenda headed out into the facility proper. Their target today was the waste dropoff vaults.

Due to its position on the aboveground supply lines and its cover story allowing for the arrival of tanker trucks without occasioning much civilian comment, AAF-A is the primary arrival point for esoteric effluence at Site-43. Anything that can't be abated there — which is most things, since the processes at the oldest plant are the simplest ones to execute — is pumped away from the shore to Camp Ipperwash and the other three facilities. The central vaults which sort and segregate each type of material by type, matter state and threat level are a colossal maze of conveyor belts, hoppers, and mechanized packaging systems. If two men were to engage in a shirtless fistfight at Site-43, this would be their first choice of venue. Thanks to the rows of cement mixer-esque cycle tumblers and heavy metal transfer rails, there's even the requisite chains hanging from the ceiling.

— Blank, Lines in a Muddle

The dropoff vaults extended to the upper levels, but all the doors were locked and what few rooms they could access from the catwalks were chock full of rubble. "I'm not one hundred percent on this," Brenda said, "but I have the sneaking suspicion there might not be a ground floor anymore."

Well, we can't be thinking about that right now. One problem at a time.

The conveyors weren't running anymore, which was a pain and a half. They'd managed to find a pair of old J&M dollies they could haul around behind them, and Udo had cleared the rubble from the first few stages of their path with strategic bursts of micamancy, so they were presently engaged in finding sacks of sand-like substance and adding each winner to the pile. It was exhausting work, and after a couple of hours of ferrying the stuff back and forth they both slumped down against a black metal hopper and tried to catch their breath. Brenda didn't even attempt to light a cigarette.

Udo opened her mouth to say something, and discovered that something had been apparently bothering her all day. "Were you seriously just going to sit around and let all this shit happen?"

Brenda looked legitimately startled, even more than Udo was, at the vehemence in her voice. "What was I going to do about it? Roll up my degree in Esoteric Theology, and use it as a club?"

"Better than just slinking around doing nothing." She didn't know where this was coming from, but she was willing to see where it was going, so she let her mouth run away with itself. "Don't you have people you care about?"

The woman looked away. "Not anymore."

Her mouth had run them off a cliff. Udo wasn't sure how to apologize, or even if she should, so she picked at her labcoat pocket and let the silence lie.

"Don't you?" Brenda asked, suddenly looking at her again.

And that, of course, was what had prompted the outburst. Udo had slept. She'd eaten — even if it was just a ration bar from the Reynders-watching station. She'd had a moment to collect her thoughts, and they'd turned immediately to the fates of the people she loved. She'd headed straight for the ADDC window to give her mind something more practical to settle on, but the human brain was more than capable of running routines in the background until the required CPU cycles came free.

Brenda was still staring at her, so she answered: "Of course I do."

"And yet you sat in a tunnel for how many months?"

This time Udo looked away. "That wasn't me."

"It was a version of you. A version of you didn't much care what happened to her friends and family."

"I'm trying not to focus on that."


Udo knew she was about to explode again, and tried to control the blast with a sharp intake of breath. "Because I have no way of knowing what happened to them! My parents are both at Site-91. Now I've said that out loud, and I have to worry that you've heard something about England until you say otherwise."

"Okay, but—"

"Say otherwise, or tell me what you know." She could have strangled the other woman.

"I don't know anything," Brenda said softly. "Intercontinental comms have been nil since shortly after Gwilherm left. I doubt it's worse over there than it is over here, but my point still stands. Why do you think you gave up and sat around in a dirty old train instead of trying to break out for their sakes?"

"I don't know." And honestly, she didn't want to.

"Of course you don't. You haven't been through this before. Nobody on Earth has." Brenda scooched a little closer to her on the floor. "You don't know what it does to you, knowing that everything is going to fall the fuck apart and there's not anything you can do to stop it from happening. It's paralyzing. It's enervating. It wipes you out. The only people left standing once everybody realizes the end is nigh are the ones without the imagination to comprehend what ending means. So don't get on your high horse just because you got dropped into this shitfest right at the start of the stages of grief. The rest of us have run the gamut, and we ended up where we ended up. Mostly going through the motions, and waiting to die."

"Fine." It sounded petulant. She felt like she was throwing a tantrum. She longed for the time, just a few days ago, when she'd been too tired for such advanced emotional contortions. "I get it. But I'm not wrong to reject that way of thinking now."

"Maybe you're not," Brenda agreed. "But you go around telling people off for trying to make their deathbeds and lie in them, you're not going to make many friends."

"I've got friends." They flashed in front of her eyes, in priority order: Harold Blank, who was more than a friend; Rozálie Astrauskas, who was both more and unfortunately less; Delfina Ibanez, Lillian Lillihammer, Stacey Laiken, even Noè Nascimbeni and Allan McInnis. Probably not William Wettle, who she supposed was more a mascot of their little group than a full-fledged member, but still. "I need to find them. I need to know that they're okay."

"They're not." Brenda touched her shoulder briefly. "Nobody's okay."

Udo ran her fingers around her own waist, tugging the labcoat tighter as though embracing herself. "Then I have to save them."

"Fine." Brenda leaned back on the hopper, arms behind her beanie. "So let's get the hauling done so you can start on your homework, and we'll see whether your way or mine was correct."

Udo looked her in the eye for a long moment. The woman radiated cynicism. She had the most jaded expressions imaginable. But those wide blue eyes spoke to something different, and it was to that something different that Udo also spoke: "Even if I fail, you were still wrong."

Brenda suddenly grinned. "You ever meet Lillian Lillihammer? You remind me a lot of her."

"We've gotten acquainted." Udo stretched out her legs. "I'll take that as a compliment."

"I mean, yeah." Brenda closed her eyes. "There's literally no other way to take it."


13 September

People are not very like computers.

Imrich didn't know very much about computers. He was more of an analog guy, preferring his notebook to his work tablet, his LPs to his CDs, even face-to-face conversations when conversations were inevitable. At the same time, however, he had once wished that people behaved more like the idealized thinking machines they had created to serve their needs. Predictable, at least until there was too much noise on the line and too many interacting processes. Subservient to routines dictated by binary logic.

Then he'd really begun to see the patterns undergirding human life, and familiarity had bred contempt, and his distaste for formula became holistic. So it was somewhat galling to have to engage Ilse Reynders for hours on end on the subject of predictive algorithms, human thought and action patterns, and behavioural sensibilities as they could be transferred into flexible digital rubrics. He'd already used up every pad of paper he could scrounge, and she'd refused to let him dictate to her — every scrap of writable material in the ADDC was unspeakably precious, since nothing could be introduced just as nothing could be removed — so he'd taken to writing on cardboard boxes, the walls, and even his own skin when the need to get it down became too great to wait for something better. And he hated every minute of it.

He must have sighed one time too many, because Reynders finally interrupted the litany of encoding questions to ask: "Does it ever bother you, being able to tell what people are going to do?"

He stopped scribbling on the back of the ration record book he'd found in the logistics office, and met her suddenly intense blue gaze. "Yes."

"It bores me," she said.

He set the book down on the nearest projector. "I'm listening."

"I've been stuck in here since before your parents were born, probably." He recognized this tone of voice. She was about to start lecturing. He'd heard her lecture before; Udo had been enthralled, but he had been distracted. He'd wondered how someone so obviously off her rocker could have anything intelligent to impart. Of course, she'd then proceeded to muddle her way through a diatribe which had completely changed the way he thought about several subfields of acroamatic abatement which he thought he'd grasped entirely, which he'd later learned she had invented. He was, therefore, willing to let her ramble a bit and see where the journey took them. "I've seen whole generations of Foundation personnel come and go. At this point I could sort them into types. The serious scholar. The studious prodigy. The reckless maverick. Sometimes I can decide within a few minutes how long they're going to last at the job. When it's particularly bad, sometimes I even tell them. Feel like I owe it to them, to everyone, to try and prevent disaster when I see it coming. Is that relatable?"

"Yeah," he said. "It's relatable. Do they ever listen to you?"

She smiled sadly. "Never. Not ever. You can call me Cassandra of the Incinerator."

"That's even more relatable."

"It's not that I get tired of having people around…"

"You lost me." He leaned against the wall, and saw her craning to look out at him from the corner of his vision.

"Go into isolation for a few decades, and you'll be sorry you squandered what company you had before, take my word for it." She paused, and he wondered if she was wondering whether this was insensitive given his recent isolation. But they didn't really have time to stand on ceremony, so the inspirational speech imminently resumed. "I'm grateful for whoever turns up at my window, most days. But I do find myself hoping I'll see the ones who really matter, the ones who stand out from the crowd. The originals. I live for conversations like that. You know?"

"I'm not a conversationalist." He wasn't sure what the point of saying that was, and he was even less sure if he wanted her to take it. "And I don't think I'm an original, either."

"Oh, you are. Most thaumaturges are. Your friend, everyone's been telling her all her life how special she is. Destined for greatness." There was a distance in the didactic tone now, and he sensed she was seeing a parallel. "Thunder just waiting to clap. And they're right, of course. But they're ruining her by doing it. There's nothing so predictable as a person rebelling against a destiny someone else picked out for them, and it's always right to rebel against it. You don't point at a shooting star and go 'streak across this stretch of sky at precisely this hour, on precisely this arc', because then it just becomes a meteorite in atmosphere. You lose the magic." She was speaking very softly now. "I wonder if it bores her, too. Being trammeled."

"I think you're putting a lot of weight on an immature reaction to responsibility," he grunted.

The academic edge returned to her voice. "How do you react to responsibility? You can see what's going to happen before it does. I'm surprised you're not an O5's bodyguard."

"That was my recruiter's first thought, too," he admitted. "He was a little put out when I told him I'd end up getting the O5 killed."

"Why is that?"

He turned to face her again. "Because I don't give a shit what people are going to do. I don't care. At all. I care about the math, but only when it's interesting." He picked up the logbook again, and shook it for emphasis. "You stare at the same equations day in and day out, adding two and two and discovering they add up to four, then adding three and one, and four and zero, then two and two again…" He slapped it on the projector, twice, then threw it over his shoulder. "Everyone's always amazed when I tell them what I can do, but I've never been less amazed with it than I am right now. I'll be even less amazed in a minute, and on and on for the rest of my life, because the real secret about people? The one the poets don't tell you about? We're so predictable, you hardly need magic to tell what we're going to do next. At best you only need magic to have that revelation. When you see the math laid out in front of you, when you see the threads pulling people around, you realize your instincts about them were already correct."

Was he imagining the twinkle in her eye as she watched him rant? "Maybe it just seems that way because you've picked up on the patterns subconsciously. Because of what you can do."

"Maybe. But that doesn't change my basic point." He bent to pick the pad up again; like her, he couldn't afford to waste the paper. "I can tell when those zombies are going to flop their hands, or walk into the wall, or fart. I can tell when Corbin's going to duck out for a cigarette. I can tell, probably right down to the minute, when Udo's going to try and make out with her."

"I take it you haven't actually been spending time on that calculation." The woman definitely looked amused, now.

"Of course not, it'll just piss me off even more when it happens if I do. The point is…"

"I know what the point is."

"Do you?"

"Of course. I've seen enough nervous breakdowns on the other side of that window to follow along."

Imrich laughed, and in a moment the mounting tension was completely dispelled. "I guess that's pretty boring too, huh."

She shook her head. "No, they're always relatively unique. But you learn to see the patterns, and this time I can relate. Do you know how many consults I've done from in here?"

He shrugged.

"Four thousand and seventeen."

He whistled. "Holy hell."

"And you know how many times my advice has been wrong?"

"You going to tell me about how bad it feels to make a mistake?"

"No, I'm going to tell you I've never made one." There was no lie in her voice, or on her face. "Anything I'm qualified to give advice about, I'm the world's leading expert on that topic. By far. I never make a mistake, Imrich. Haven't since, oh, around the 1960s I'd say."

She lowered her gaze for a moment, and said "I'm fine, thank you." She wasn't talking to him. She'd been having fewer of these episodes since they arrived, and he was starting to think their presence might be having a calming effect. Or perhaps a stabilizing effect? Perhaps they were anchoring her to this reality. He wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not; she might be crazier when drifting out to space, but she was also linking up with a version of herself with access to infinitely more resources. Dilemma.

She picked up as though she'd never left off. "And you know what? If it wouldn't hurt anyone, if it wouldn't cause too much of a problem… I really would like to. Honestly. Fairly. Legitimately, make a mistake. I'd like to be wrong about something. I think that would feel really nice. I think that would teach me a lot."

"I guess I see where this is going." It was one of his most frequently-employed stock sentences. It was practically his motto. It never didn't make him feel a little angry, having to say it.

"Wouldn't it be nice, just once, to not know what someone is going to do before they do it?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I think that would be nice, actually. Scary, but good scary." He considered. "Four thousand and what, did you say?"


"That's nuts."

"I'd rather have done more, honestly. It feels good to think I'm having some sort of effect on the world, even if I'll never get to see it up close."

Up close. She was practically pressed against the window, and from where he stood he could see the pores in her skin. She looked tired. She always looked tired. But she was still thinking, still talking, still figuring things out. She'd seen more than he'd see in a lifetime, and far less, and still she was interested in knowing what came next. "Well, you never know," he said. Just to have something to say, to make it sound like he shared her inexplicable hope. For her. For them.

For anyone.

"I'm surprised a person with your capabilities even has that phrase in their vocabulary." She smirked. "As we've established, you almost always know."

"Not almost."

"Certainly almost."

"What do you mean?"

"Have you ever tried reading me?"

He looked down at her for a long moment, then picked up the logbook.

She stood very still, like she was posing for a portrait, as he watched her very closely, then began tracing the lines. After a minute of that, he started on the math.

After an hour, he almost couldn't breathe. The air was electric. The logbook was full.

"Thank you," he said.

It didn't seem nearly enough.


19 September

"What's driving you?" Brenda asked, apropos of nothing.

Udo glanced up from the trail of crushed and transmuted mica she was trailing through the hall. "Calories?"

Brenda flipped her off.

"I mean, I dunno." Udo traced a new, perpendicular line across the first, and began spiralling out the requisite nodes. Across the hall, Brenda was consulting a carefully-sketched schematic. Udo didn't need to. She knew it all by heart. "The future of the human race isn't enough?"

"Nah. Too abstract."

Udo laughed.

"Seriously though. It's been a month." Brenda shook out her tired arms, leather jacket squeaking in protest. "I've lived through what you're living through. By now you barely remember what it was like for everything not to be terrible. Are you just trying to bring that feeling back? Or are you clinging to the memory of it? What's making you want to walk out there and get mauled to death by an angry water panther? Because you know there's no going back, and there's no solving this shit from inside."

"I'm a true believer," Udo smiled.

"In what?"

"In the mission."

Brenda produced a single, harsh syllable of laughter. "Oh, come on. You're not stupid. The mission is propaganda."

"How do you figure?"

"We could protect the world a lot better in the light. We've got more than enough resources to operate with impunity, so we could force the national governments to let us do our jobs. We wouldn't have to waste so much time and energy and money on wiping people's brains and deleting internet garbage and the million other ridiculous hush-up ops we run. If we really wanted to do Good, capital-G style, this isn't how we'd go about it." Brenda's sand-tracery was getting sloppy as she spoke, and she corrected it with a single steel toe.

"Imperfect system for a perfect goal," said Udo. "We're young. We've got time to be the change we want to see. In the interim, we really are making a difference." She began the process of connecting her symbols to Brenda's makeshift capacitors, closing the distance between them both.

"What a lovely, selfless motivation," the other woman cooed. "That keeps you warm at night, does it?"

Udo bit her lip, and didn't answer. She tried to focus on the lines.

"Are you warm at night?"

Udo looked up. Their eyes met.

"Would you like me to stop asking this question?"

"Not particularly." She finished the line, then pinched a few grains of vim harenae onto it to check for continuity and connectivity. The rush of information was just short of digital.

"Were you seeing anyone?" Brenda prodded, her tone oddly… off. Vulnerable. "Before you deigned to join us in this farce?"

"Yes." Udo was electricity in the circuits, running the gamut of the space they'd hollowed out from the wrack and rubble. But there was another electricity as well, in the air, that she couldn't quite ignore.

"Do you miss her?"

She had the information she required, but she was hesitant to draw back fully into herself. She didn't trust the motive to do so. "Him. And yeah, I do." It was almost like someone else was saying the words, perhaps even thinking the thoughts. The machine was nearly complete. She felt she could easily have lost herself in it, become it. But that wasn't what it was for.

"Him, huh." Brenda looked away. "Guess I had you pegged wrong."

Udo took a deep breath, and severed the link. It felt like dying, but she refused to fall again. Brenda might catch her, and then what would happen? "Not wrong," she rasped. "Just… insufficiently."

"Oh." The back of the beanie bobbed as the theologian looked down at her schematic again, then slightly less down at the circuits on the floor. "Fair enough. Who was he?"

"Dr. Blank."

Brenda laughed, and wheeled on her. Her cheeks were flushed. Her eyes were… well, electric blue. "That jackass? How the fuck? How the actual fuck."

Udo felt a rush of defensive affront. "We have a lot in common."

"Like hell you do." Brenda was practically dancing, just nearly missing the delicate lines on the floor. "He's a lump of dough with hairs in. His league isn't even in your league's league. What the fuck?"

"I happen to think he looks very dignified," Udo grumbled.

"Oh, sure, until he opens his mouth."

Udo grabbed Brenda by the shoulders, leaned in, and just barely resisted the urge to shake her. "I like him best when his mouth is open."

Delight spread across those once-grim features. "You realize how—"

"Yes, I realize how that sounds." Udo let go, and turned away. "It'd be worse if he said it about me."

Brenda laughed. "It would."

"He's a good guy," she reassured the wall.

"I always thought he was into his partner. Whatsername. The ditz."

"Bradbury." It came out as a dismissive mutter, and Udo wondered at her own newfound defensiveness.

"Bradbury, right. Last I heard he was still mooning over her."

It was instantly exhausting, the impulse to explain away these things she didn't even want to be considering. "Well," she managed, "it was very sudden."

"What was?"

"The coma."

"What coma?"

"Oh." Right. "That was after the breach. Of course it was. She's… still around, then."

Their present circumstances suddenly seemed very abstract. She was actively considering distant angles now. She didn't like the way they looked.

"Last I heard," Brenda nodded. "Could have changed by now. They could both be dead, honestly, and I'd have no idea." She paused. "Sorry."

"No, you're right." Udo shook this newest distraction out of her head. She knew it would come creeping back in through the ears in due time, just as she knew the best way to dispel it was to finish the job and link up with the rest of the Site. In any event, there was something in what Brenda had said that didn't make sense… "But why would he be mooning over her, if she's still awake?"

"Because he's with V—"

"Veiksaar!" Udo fairly shouted, slapping her forehead. "Oh, shit. This is going to take a lot of getting used to."

"Wonder how he's getting used to it." The other woman grinned salaciously.


"Just saying."

"Well, stop saying."

There wasn't that much more to do in this sector. By tomorrow they'd be mapping out a new one, and the next day she'd be banging out the next set of circuits with Reynders. She wished there was a better way to go about their task, but knew that there wasn't. One of them would have figured it out. Probably Reynders. Maybe Udo. Maybe even Imrich.

Probably not Brenda.

Udo almost made herself laugh.

"Got gas?"

She plucked the sheet out of the theologian's hands. "We're done here. Let's head back."

It had been a good day's work. She'd learned a lot. She was learning more every day; she wondered how much of the overall calamity she might have been able to avert if her other self had applied her talents to the tunnelslide earlier, found Reynders earlier, found Imrich and Brenda. The possibilities seemed endless, but she didn't precisely feel guilty over it. Rather, she felt…

She felt…

She felt like learning a few things more, and she felt just bloody-minded enough to go for it. "Are you seeing anyone?"

Brenda had been in the process of lighting a cigarette, but stopped when the question surprised her. After a moment, she managed: "I had a very intimate relationship up until about two months ago, when my batteries ran out and I couldn't find any more."

Udo laughed. "Jesus Christ."

"Well it was a dumbass question, wasn't it? There's nobody else at F-A who isn't a zombie or a maniac."

"I meant before, obviously."

"Before, not really. My boss had a thing for me for a while, then we both found out I didn't have a thing for him in a really final sort of way."

"Oh." Udo nodded. "Yeah."


"Do you know what happened to him?"


"Do you—"

"Think about it every day." She finished lighting her cigarette.

"I thought you weren't worried about friends and family."

"Everybody worries about something." Brenda rolled the paper across her lips, and Udo watched the flesh deform and reform. She was wearing lipstick. Udo didn't wear lipstick, as a matter of habit, but she indulged on rare occasions. Just to see how it tasted…

The other woman was apparently waiting for a response. "What?" Udo said.

"I said," Brenda repeated, "You can't lie idle forever."


28 September

"No, that won't work." Reynders sighed, not in frustration — she was an excellent pedagogue, and never got frustrated while instructing — but in mental exhaustion. This project was testing the limits of what she could handle, in her state, though that was nothing compared to the number it was doing on Udo's head. "But it doesn't need to work. ATCP doesn't ossify, that's why it's armageddon-proof. We'd never be able to make this function if we were using standard protocols."

"I don't understand how you're able to keep all this information in your head," Udo groaned. Her work tablet was lagging just trying to keep up with the schematics she was drawing, and the associated code she was writing.

"I was awake and alert when the incinerator blew up in my face," Reynders smiled. "I'm cursed to be awake and alert all the time. You've had rather a harder run lately than I have."

"And now you're comforting me." Udo stretched out her back on the comfortable office chair she'd pilfered from some middle manager's old office. "How perverse is that?"

A brief cloud passed across the other woman's pixie-like face. "Because I'm the damsel in distress?"

"I'm not trying to minimize what you've accomplished," Udo said quickly. "I wouldn't know how to start doing that if I wanted to. It's just… holy shit. How are you the stable one in this situation? The universe just keeps piling more and more shit on you."

"The universe is applied pressure," said Reynders. "It presses down on everyone until they eventually break. Gravity does it to your bones, the atmosphere does it to your lungs, and other people do it to your brains. It's a game to see how long you can last. Outlasting isn't an option. You just try to get as much done while the timer ticks down as you can, and hope for a high score."

"You just said 'high score'. Someone will have had to explain to you what that means. You've been in that box since before video games existed."

"Well," said Reynders. "I sort of invented video games."

They conducted a brief game of chicken. Neither of them won, because Reynders added, almost as an afterthought: "I also sort of invented computers."

If she was lying, she must have invented that too.

Udo shook her head. "The stuff you've done, and where you've done it… God, you're just amazing. You know that, right? You're amazing. Everyone thinks you're amazing."

Reynders looked away.

"I've got the run of the place, or at least I did, and I got a winning ticket on the brain lottery, and what have I accomplished?" Udo realized she was ranting again, and didn't bother to try and stop. All this planning and preparation meant bottling things up that couldn't stay bottled forever, and it wouldn't do for them to burst while they were putting the plan into motion. "There's no way in hell I'd be able to take that much pressure."

Reynders looked at her sideways, as though too bashful for full-on face time in the midst of this effusive praise. "You never know until it's happening. I thought I was a fragile, sensitive thing before I walked in that door for the final time. When I woke up, and they told me what had happened, I wished I could die. At one point I even tried to make it happen." She wasn't lost in remembrance. She had this memory on instant recall. "I regret that."

"Because of what you've been able to do?"

"Because of what it would have meant. If I've got any value besides the mound of nonsense piled up inside my brain, it's as an example of how much pressure a person can take without imploding. If I'd died, I'd be just one more example of human weakness. Another sad story." She smiled grimly. "That's not what the world needs."

"You can't live for what other people want you to be." Udo found the relevant memories similarly easy to access.

"No," Reynders agreed, "but it's not a binary." She shifted her feet and peered straight out the window again. "You don't live for just one thing, or you shouldn't anyway. The expectations others have for us is one way to measure our lives. The expectations we have for ourselves are another. But the stuff that really matters happens when nobody is measuring. Life doesn't proceed according to some master plan, or even multiple plans."

"Try telling that to Imrich," Udo snorted.

"Oh, I think he knows it better than most. He's not fatalistic, he's idealistic. He doesn't want to believe that life is just a death march to a set of prescribed goals, and neither do I, despite what we know." The other woman leaned forward, for emphasis. "You're worried that you might not be able to fix this thing."

Udo grunted. "It's just a matter of electronics."

"I don't meant the array. I mean the entire problem. All of it."

"That's outside my competence threshold, obviously."

"You're only saying that. You don't believe it."

Udo stood up, walked halfway down the hall on impulse, then came back. She felt guilty for doing it, because Reynders couldn't. "I came here because you have the brains to solve this thing, if anyone does."

"You came to me to pass off the problem," Reynders said quietly, "because you can't stand the obligation to solve it on your own. And that's fair. Of course, nobody but you expected you to solve it, but…"

Udo had taken the train back in baseline reality to talk out her issues with the smartest woman at Site-43. In a roundabout way, she'd arrived at her destination. But it was no longer where she needed to go, so she couldn't linger long. "I could give you a speech about my parents, but it seems like you've done an end run around me."

"Just because things aren't fully predictable doesn't mean I can't make an educated guess."

Brenda rolled out of the monitoring room, yawning. She'd taken a siesta after hauling the last of the materials into their temporary workroom, which had once been an employee lounge. "Your guesses are overeducated. Let's start advancing the practicalities instead."

Udo smiled. "I'll go get Imrich."


3 October

"What's on for today?" Brenda shrugged her leather jacket on. She only took it off to sleep, shower, or shit.

"Don't know." Imrich was sitting at the dinner table they'd set up between the projectors. They'd been spending more and more time with Reynders over the past few weeks. It helped her think. Truth be told, it helped them all think. "Ilse won't give me the new list."

Udo sat down across from him, and reached out to take his hands. He stared at her suspiciously. "That's because there isn't one."

"What?" Brenda took the seat between the two of them.

"Udo knows everything she needs to know," Reynders explained. "And so does Imrich. And the lot of you have gathered everything required to put it to use. We've got a little more building to do here, a week's worth at most, and then things get a lot less academic."

Imrich frowned. "What does that mean?"

Udo took a deep breath. "It means I'm going to need to leave F-A."

Brenda placed her hands over theirs.

Imrich looked at each of them in turn. "And do what?"

"Find the natives," said Udo, "and convince them to draw the MTFs away."

He nodded, slowly. "How are we going to find them?"

"They'll find me pretty easily, I think. This is their land, and as far as we know from what Brenda's heard, they never have much trouble tracking the agents who enter their territory."

"I notice you turned my 'we' into 'I'." He took his hands back, and crossed his arms.

"You can't go out there alone." Brenda kept her hands on Udo's.

"We need Imrich here," said Ilse. "When Udo convinces the natives to help us, he needs to be interpreting the agents to make sure they're actually leaving the facility with no intention of circling back. Then he can call Udo back in, and the three of you can do your work while the bad guys are otherwise occupied."

"I reiterate: outside is death." Brenda squeezed her hand. "You won't make it far by yourself."

"So go with her." Reynders made it sound like nothing more than advising a trip to the grocery store.

"What about how I spent the last few months hiding in a water tank suggests to you that I have a death wish?" Brenda's voice was raised, but she wasn't facing the window. She was facing Udo. For the first time, she wasn't only worried about herself.

"I've always thought you had more of a life wish, honestly." Ilse smiled sadly. "And you call this living?"

"It's been good enough for you, hasn't it?"

"No. Not remotely. If I could change places with you, I wouldn't even need to think it over first. I'd rather be out there, however it looks, than be stuck in this box for the rest of eternity." Ilse placed both hands on the glass, the way she did when making a particularly personal entreaty. "But I don't have that choice. You do."

Imrich had been making small growling sounds for the entirety of this tangent, and they finally congealed into a complaint. "I don't even like the idea of the two of them going out there."

"There's no safe way to make this work," Udo told him, wishing he'd kept his hands on the table, "or someone else would have done it already. We have to take a chance."

"And you're volunteering me to take it with you," Brenda remarked lightly.

Udo looked her in the eye. You want me to make the decision for you, right? So you can keep pretending that you don't care.

Well, why not. The slim theologian had been a game partner, Udo could cut her a little slack. "Look at it this way, Brenda. If we make it, you might be the first white person to see a thunderbird in… I don't know. How many years?"

Brenda stared at her for a few long seconds before replying.

"No white person has ever seen a thunderbird. I'll start filling a backpack."

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