Granularity

Granularity


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2002

8 September

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


The casualty form for the lab technician with the two-dimensional head gave Ibanez absolutely no trouble.

Lénárd Dobos had been doing maintenance in the next chamber over from Udo Okorie, and he'd taken his esomat helmet off — in flagrant contravention of three distinct protocols — to see what the flashing lights were all about, and something in the invisible thaumic backspill had turned his head 2-D. It sounded weird on paper; it looked weirder in person; it presumably felt weirdest of all, since it had inexplicably not killed him. Émilie LeClair, the Site's chief physician, had explained it this way: "Everything that's supposed to be there, is there. It's all working, and it's all healthy. As long as you scan his head straight on, you see what you expect to see. Of course, the moment he needs medical attention requiring observation or access from an oblique angle… if we can't reverse this, he's going to have to take extra care to avoid head trauma. But he's got a h—" LeClair had sighed. "A head start on the rest of us there, since the surface area of his cranium is now less than one percent of the human norm." That statement pretty well covered the bases, and it only took Ibanez two minutes to fill and file the form. She had luxuriated a while longer in the details of Wettle's concussion, the only thing of consequence to occur during the breach of which she wholeheartedly approved, but still that had only taken five minutes off her life. Phil Deering remained in the care of Health and Pathology, so she had merely to tap out a few lines reporting their initial course of treatment — provided, again, by LeClair. Each of the dead/transfigured agents, researchers and techs merited closer attention after the expedition into AAF-D, so their files were temporarily suspended… which was good, as she didn't want to think about that any more than she already had. All told, the immediate paperwork aftermath from the single worst disaster ever to occur at Site-43 occupied just shy of two bells.

Except for the matter of Dougall Deering.

Ibanez stood behind Yancy in the main security office, wishing she'd brought a stepstool; she could only just see over the man's broad back. She jabbed one finger across his right shoulder, directing him to a specific camera feed, and supplied the relevant time stamp. He struck a few keys, and they watched the nonsense together.

The Chief of Applied Occultism strolled down one of the scopious hallways criss-crossing his Section, head bobbing. Ibanez fancied he was whistling, from the shape of his cheeks. He passed Okorie's chamber, glanced at it, and smiled cryptically. He passed the chamber of the tech with the still-three-dimensional head without any obvious thoughts on the matter.

And then he stopped dead.

Literally dead. He died. In mid-step he turned his head to one side, as though hearing something, and as he put his foot back down he uttered a single word, and before he could take another step… he was gone. He didn't clutch at his chest, he didn't cry out in pain or surprise or fear. No look of realization sprang into his eyes, which instead rolled back in his head as blood filled the sockets, and he hit the floor at a bad angle. They couldn't hear his neck snap, but it was no less palpable for that.

Ibanez repeated the word Deering had chosen to mark the instant of his demise: "What." She couldn't even manage to make a question out of it, so complete was her bafflement.

"He heard something?" Yancy was so similarly baffled that he couldn't not make a question out of this tentative statement. "It must have been the breach."

She shook her head, and almost reached over to tap the timestamp before she realized she'd practically have to piggyback on him to reach it. She pointed again instead. "More than an hour early. And anyway, he looked away from where it happens."

Yancy whistled. "We didn't notice a dead doctor for an hour. How did that happen?"

Ibanez had been wondering this as well. She knew the Director would be asking her the same question. As she always did when she didn't have an answer, she reverted the topic. "Maybe the breach started more subtly than we think. Maybe this was part of it."

"He might have heard, I don't know, the pipes echoing in the halls. Humming at the precise frequency of 'your brain explodes'. That's the kind of insanity that happens around here."

"Doesn't happen around there, though." She resisted the urge to point for a third time. "The halls in ApplOcc don't echo." Extra voices, even in reflection, would fuck with the incantations.

"Okay, so it was something invisible. What ab—"

The emergency lights snapped on in the video. The camera feed had sped up in the absence of any non-trivial visual data between frames. This underscored the fact that Deering had died before any of the Site's thousands of pieces of monitoring equipment had detected the least indication that something was wrong, leaving them both momentarily at a loss for what else to say.

Dougall Deering had definitely died before the breach had reached upstairs.

"Play it again," Ibanez sighed.

It didn't help. If Deering had heard anything, they couldn't hear it. Whatever he'd felt, they could only guess. LeClair had already told Ibanez, quite sheepishly, that besides the fact that his ophthalmic and central retinal arteries had somehow burst, and besides the fact that his corpse had indeed broken its neck on the teal tiles, there was no obvious reason why he should have perished. "Then again," she'd yawned, "he was a thaumaturge. Their bodies do crazy all the time, and all I ever see is the fallout. I've treated him for hand-shaped abrasions on his chest, sudden onset heterochromia, and sand in the urethra in the past two years alone. Eventually one learns not to ask." Ibanez envied her that luxury.

This time they let the feed keep rolling, which was a mistake. Okorie came tumbling out of her chamber, sealing the door behind her; she fell to the floor in an esomat heap; she cast about, jerkily; she saw Deering; she screamed.

She tore the head off her suit — Ibanez had found the neck ring warped well out of shape by a desperate burst of strength — and threw herself down the hall, scrabbling on all fours. They watched her cradle the dead man's head in her hands, gingerly turning it until it became clear that it would turn no further, and then she bent down anyway and—

"Jesus," Yancy breathed. "She had to know that wouldn't take."

Okorie's half-hearted CPR attempt lasted just a few seconds. She spent another minute with her head on the corpse's chest, as though listening for a heartbeat, before tearing herself away again and pressing her vinyl back against the porcelain wall.

Ibanez didn't need to see the rest of the footage. She knew she'd see herself arrive fifteen minutes later to find the younger woman still pulling her legs up against her chest and sobbing, staring at the man she no longer worked for with wide, unseeing amber eyes.


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She was a grain of sand, and it didn't hurt.

It wasn't all she was, but she focused on the sand. A single grain was far too simple to feel pain; human beings require an inestimable quantity of dedicated sensory neurons — nociceptors — to interpret a message of injury, so that even if she could feel pain in her simplified state, she would have had nowhere to send that information. She'd need about eighty-six billion more grains to simulate a human brain, assuming she could alter their chemical composition to mimic the required reactions (which she probably could), but that was still a lot of effort just to receive one unpleasant signal from a single grain of sand. Just to feel the quantum of pain. Even rounding downward to a heart-nosed bat, able to hurt without recourse to higher reasoning with its much more basic brain of merely ten billion neurons, would require structural coordination at the microscopic level far beyond the reach of the most sophisticated nanomachinery. Of course she had easy access to a human brain, if she wanted it, but she didn't. To feel a lot of pain, pain data as opposed to pain hearsay, she'd need a lot of nociceptors as well, and if she were of a mind to recreate herself in sand she would lean toward skipping that step entirely.

Somewhere far away, nothing but a ghostly impression to the particle of her being, was a body and a brain which were already in pain — a pain completely divorced from the function of nociceptors. But that wasn't her, not now, not for as long as she needed it not to be.

For now she was a single grain of sand… until she reached out finally to another, and became two. She could watch herselves floating, side by each. She became four, and existed for the first time truly in three dimensions. Sixteen, and air buoyancy became a concern. Two hundred and fifty-six, and the monochrome world was awash with colour. Sixty-five thousand, five hundred and thirty-six grains of sand could form complex circuits; four billion, two hundred and ninety-four million, nine hundred and sixty-seven thousand, two hundred and ninety-six grains of sand gave her the awareness of a particularly stupid bat, and it soared down through the blackened rent █████ ███ ████ ████ ██ █████████ ███████ and down through a blasted containment cell and down into the cooling thaumic sewer of AAF-D. She drew particles of dust and flakes of ash into her cloud of consciousness, avoiding the existential threat of recondite scraps tumbling against the current, mixing and matching and missing until she felt nearly the mirror image of her almost-forgotten meat-and-water other self, probing each nook and cranny in each of the three ruined spaces and asking why, why, why, and as a very distant second, how.

When the job was done she pulled back, back, back into her frail but constant body, and fell instantly to sleep. She woke up two hours later, as simply Udo Okorie.

It hurt.


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9 September


"I'm sure you have a lot of questions."

Nhung Ngo did seem sure that Udo had a lot of questions. There was a clipboard in her lap, and it had a lot of paper clipped to it. There were a lot of pens in her jacket pocket, as though running out of ink would be a disaster demanding pre-mitigation. There was a lot of calculated patience and compassion evident on her face.

"Not really." Udo had meant to state it flatly, but a yawn rather spoiled the effect.

Ngo's expression shifted slightly, and Udo had no idea what the new emotion might be. She wasn't a big face reader, and anyway there was an awful lot of hair — Udo's own, wild and tangled after not enough sleep and not enough giving a shit — hanging between them like a ragged curtain. "You've lost your work supervisor during promotions season. You don't have any questions?"

Udo shrugged.

A metal click, and Ngo produced a printout from her clipboard. She slid it across her desk. "They had you hooked up to thirteen separate biometric systems for four hours last night, systems you helped design, mapping out a disaster area with micamancy. According to Dr. LeClair, you over-exerted yourself and passed out — and when you woke up, the first thing you did was ask to see the final report. That doesn't sound like someone without questions."

Udo shrugged again. "That was this morning. This is now."

Ngo's expression continued to evolve. Udo tried to muster the urge to wonder what the permutations signified; as she had every time she'd tried to focus on something since finishing the breach report, she failed.

The psychologist tapped the clipboard with the end of her front-line pen. "Alright, well, I know the questions you should be asking, so how about I ask and answer them at the same time?"

The third shrug came without conscious effort.

Ngo leaned forward. "First of all: your work situation. Are you still on the duty roster for Applied Occultism? After I clear you, the answer is 'yes'."

"Woo." This time it came out properly deflated.

"Second, the Section itself. Who's the new Chief? That would be Dr. Zlatá."

Ngo paused. Apparently a response was expected.

Udo bestowed upon Ngo a single blink.

"Your dissertation supervisor."

"Yes." She blinked again. "So?"

"So, his schedule's about to get a whole lot tighter. He won't be able to give you and your project the time and attention they need. Don't shrug again."

She didn't shrug, but she did shift in her seat. Ngo knew how to knock someone off-balance, how to do it with the softest touch, and how to time the strike for maximum effect. It was too easy to forget that this mild-mannered young woman divided her time equally between troubled colleagues and hostile subjects in containment.

"That brings us to the third question: who should your new supervisor be? I'm going to suggest Dr. Laiken… does that surprise you?" Ngo had either missed the timing of Udo's sudden wince — unlikely — or had chosen to play coy.

"No." It certainly didn't surprise her. Next to Zlatá, Dr. Stacey Laiken was AO's senior scientist. The prestigious task of directing a prodigy like Udo Okorie would naturally fall to her. As Dougall's Dr. Deering's research partner, she had a hand in every major piece of thaumaturgy occurring at Site-43.

No, it wasn't surprise that caused Udo to wince. Wake up, wake up, wake up…

Ngo sat back, peering at her through cat-narrowed eyes. "What do you think?"

She had to say something. She had to stop this. She said: "Why?" Fuck. FUCK. Don't give up the initiative. "Uh… why? Won't she be… isn't she…?" Udo sighed in frustration, shifting again in her seat and gritting her teeth. Her pulse was quickening. "She's got to be upset. Too upset."

Ngo nodded. "She is upset. And so are you. That's why it's such a good idea; I think it would do you both some good, getting together and talking. Nobody knew Dr. Deering better than the two of you, and you can heal together while you finish his final project."

Udo wanted to vomit, but she spat out instead: "Final project?"

"Of course." Ngo smiled encouragingly. "You!"


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2001

19 May


As she'd done every morning since acquiring her first security clearance level, Udo read the Site News bulletins in bed. There would be another marathon bafflegab-translation session in the manor's capacious drawing room this evening, with the Book of the Turning Gyre as its subject; she was more of a practical magician, and theory — particularly impenetrable, possibly bogus theory — bored her to tears, so she wouldn't have gone to that if she could. Which, of course, she couldn't. Personnel were to consider themselves warned that the Librarians of the Wanderers' Library had issued a massive sheaf of overdue notices covering the Site's entire occult collection (one of the Foundation's largest, packed with enough magical paper to make a paper golem capable of casting every one of the twelve known spells that could end the world), and the perimeter was therefore on high alert against potential Serpent's Hand incursions. Finally, MTF Phi-8 ("There Can Be Only Twelve") had apparently captured the Gorbals Vampire, and a detailed debriefing was available for any interested parties. That was bound to be a good read, so she saved it to her work tablet.

She checked her email next, marvelling at the advent of wireless internet. It was a luxury where she came from, but down here the less new wires you needed to string, the better. What did she have today… a word of encouragement from her mother, its gentle rolling prose-terrain littered with the visible plungers of scrupulously unaccusatory guilt-mines; two passive-aggressive contentless ramblings from one man and one woman who both obviously wanted to get to know her better, both expecting her to do all the work; and, finally, a notice that the annual keycard permissions reset was a requirement of her continued employment, so she'd need to check in at a security office within two weeks at maximum.

Not bloody likely.

She'd thought that failing to de-register from the Site-91 newsgroup and email service would make the transition easier. As she swore she'd never been in England, as she constantly seemed to be while here in Canada, she'd been wrong.

She fired up 43NET next, and glanced over the daily obligations for her first on-duty day. There was a reminder that she needed to find a lab partner; this pissed her off to near-distraction. Why couldn't they just assign people at random? There were three separate announcements for junior researcher study groups; two of them urged interested parties to turn up at locations she'd never heard of and, frankly, suspected had been invented whole-cloth as a joke, and one told her to contact 'Frank' to get on a waitlist. She didn't know any Franks. She didn't know why this Frank's fame was supposed to precede him. Maybe everyone here knew this Frank except for her.

And then, of course, there was The Summons. She was to meet her work supervisor for the first time at noon, in an observation chamber on the first sublevel. He was one of the only two people in this entire underground facility whose voice she'd ever heard. She'd never met Dougall Deering, had only spoken to him very briefly on an overseas phone call, but she was certainly not looking forward to getting to know him.

She wasn't looking forward to getting to know anyone. She was looking forward to already having done.


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There were two other thaumics in what Udo considered her 'cohort', the new hires on-boarding together this season, and they were waiting in the antiseptic off-white observation room when she arrived. One was a handsome but sullen young man named Imrich: 'rescued' from a Serpent's Hand enclave in Slovakia as a child and raised at Site-120, a Foundation baby both like and unlike Udo herself. He was very tall, very dark, very thin and very severe, arched brows and thin lips and a pronounced, pointed nose. The other was a hazel-haired girl from the Czech Republic named Rozálie, and Udo didn't know anything about her that she couldn't pick up on sight. Her overbite, large front teeth and eclectic pony tails were appealingly dorky, she spoke with a high-pitched Cockney accent which was even more appealingly inexplicable, and she looked like she weighed less than a suitcase, as though her gangly frame could only barely support the weight of a labcoat — which perhaps explained why she wasn't wearing one. Udo herself was modelling a generic model, as was Imrich. They would only get their custom Applied Occultism jobs, with the wizard sleeves and wizard hood, when they passed their comprehensive exams.

Every Section at Site-43 has their own unique take on the labcoat, if only so personnel can be sorted out by purview in a pinch. Theology and Teleology's feature black lining, for a subdued priestly touch. Arms and Equipment sport engineer's blues, for detecting spills and corrosion, with plenty of extra pockets for gadget storage. Replication Studies has lighter blue coats to make William Wettle identifiable at a distance, enabling those in the know to avoid him. If you think that's a joke, you haven't met him yet. A proper discussion of what they wear in Memetics and Countermemetics will be deferred for later; suffice to say the effect is remarkable. In many cases, however, the form follows no particular function. Archivists and admins and computer technicians perform vanishingly few tasks carrying any risk of spillage. The coats are more for visual flair than utility, a fact most obviously attested by the low, low number of labcoat-wearers who do up all the buttons like you're supposed to. Most let them hang loosely over their shoulders like a badass longcoat or a wizard's cloak or a magician's cape. Those last two images are particularly applicable to the Applied Occultism case, since their coats feature detachable hoods. This, bucking the trend, has an actual use case: letting a demon get a good look at your face, or god forbid, your eyes, augurs against a long and happy career in practical magic.

— Blank, Lines in a Muddle

Statistically, at least one of their happy trio would be either insane or dead within the next two years.

The three of them swapped meaningless pleasantries, Imrich making it seem like a tiresome chore, Rozálie droning charmingly, before the door opened again and their boss strolled in.

Dougall Deering was taller than Udo, as most men were. He was very neatly-groomed, he had a tidy brown beard and tidy brown backswept hair and soulful brown eyes behind narrow wire spectacles and a definitively Scottish facial structure — Phi-8 was made up entirely of Scots, and she'd admired them from up close until she could reliably identify one from afar. She noticed that his labcoat lacked the hood. She noticed that he walked like anything in his way would naturally excuse itself rather than press the issue. She noticed—

He tapped the glass separating them from the darkened containment chamber, and flicked a switch on the wall with his other hand. The inner lights flickered on, and she saw what was waiting within: an adult human skeleton on a metal armature.

"What are we looking at?" Deering asked them, in tones deep and sonorous and not a little playful.

"Cryptid," Rozálie answered immediately.

"What? It's not a cryptid, it's human." Imrich, Udo saw, had a talent for scoffing without scoffing. She wondered if it was actually his Talent.

"It's a cryptid," Rozálie insisted. "The aura isn't baseline, and it isn't Akiva either. Neither man nor god, but animal. Cryptid."

So, a gangly, goofy aura reader. Udo hoped attraction wasn't visible in the soular spectrum.

Deering nodded. "Good start, miss Astrauskas. Mr. Sýkora?"

Imrich glared at Rozálie, leaned closer to the glass… then suddenly recoiled. "What is that?!"

"What is wh—" Rozálie began.

The skeleton exploded. No, not quite, but the effect was nevertheless impressive: a cloud of red dust burst from the bones in every direction, momentarily obscuring their view before being hoovered away by invisible fans in the ceiling and floor vents.

Imrich was apparently precognitive.

"That," said Udo, "is a dead sandman."

All three of them turned to look at her. Imrich looked irritated; Rozálie looked confused. The corners of Deering's lips quirked upward in a way Udo found encouraging.

"SCP-5281-D," she continued. "The Seven O'Clock Gentleman. He used to be able to generate anomalous sand, to put kids to sleep. Apparently he still does."

"Every day," Deering agreed. "At unpredictable intervals."

"We'll see about that," Imrich muttered. He pulled a pad of paper out of his labcoat pocket, disentangled a half-pencil from the spiral binding, and concentrated on the skeleton. After a moment, he started to write.

"How did you know?" Rozálie was openly sizing Udo up. "What power did you use?"

"Free time," she grinned sheepishly. "I've read up on every subject in containment here, dead or alive, within my clearance level. Nothing better to do."

Deering looked pleased. "I suspect we'll be able to find more stimulating uses for your time, Researcher Okorie."


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28 July


"Sorry I'm late." Udo finished buttoning her labcoat, the mustard stain on her best dress shirt now tucked away, and flashed an eager smile at her supervisor. He smiled back, then did a double-take.

She shouldn't have put off the laundry for so long, but she'd been too engrossed in her studies to deal with anything prosaic. She'd blocked out a stretch of time before the lecture, had been halfway to the laundrette when a sharp cluster of pain had blossomed across the right hemisphere of her brain, and she'd whipped her head around to find the source, thereby flinging her glasses off her nose. Two broken lenses, just because nobody had thought to tell her they'd be carting corrupted asbestos down her route to work that day.

Maybe if I'd been checking the Site-43 notifications…

Asbestos was a hazard in every dimension; it was to sand, in micamantic terms, what cigarette smoke was to oxygen. She'd recovered quickly enough from the shock, but her not enough time to do laundry had now become not enough time to do laundry or get her glasses fixed. So she'd popped in her contact lenses, and made the best of it.

"You've… done something with your eyes, miss Okorie." Deering was transfixed.

She blushed. "Yeah, broke my glasses." She also broke eye contact and sat down beside Rozálie and Imrich, hoping she wouldn't have to explain further.


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1990

5 October

Yorkshire: England, United Kingdom


"But I think they look neat," Udo whined.

"They do look neat," her father agreed, opening the little cardboard box with his fingernails. "And you mustn't be ashamed of them."

"Then why are you gonna cover 'em up?" She'd been given an extraordinary gift in the night, had woken up to it without realizing, had stumbled into the bathroom to brush her teeth and been confronted with two astonishing points of amber where brown had once been. Only the irises had changed, but they had changed dramatically. There was fire in her eyes today, and it had won her a day off from school and therefore an early weekend.

"Because the other kids won't understand." Obi Okorie removed the plastic case of custom contact lenses they'd obtained from Dr. Cooper at the Big House, and binned the box. "They're not old enough to understand difference."

"You're telling me." She had stared at her reflection before, pondering her relative visual uniqueness. Yorkshire was predominantly white, and when people in Yorkshire weren't white, they were assumed to be some variety of Middle Eastern. She'd been called names that meant absolutely nothing to her, and sometimes meant nothing to her parents, both of whom were black. "But they're… so cool, dad. They're special."

He knelt down and turned her away from the sink. "Just like you, wunderkind. And never forget it. But it takes a while for people to understand that being special is good; some of them think it's bad, and a lot of them think it's scary. Some day you'll show them they're wrong."

"Maybe," she said. "Maybe not."

He frowned. "What do you mean?"

She raised her hands up, and formed them into little claws. "Maybe I am scary. Rar!" She grinned. "Tiger eyes."

He laughed, and opened the case. "Wash your hands, tiger."


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2001

28 July

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


She got what she thought she wanted; Deering didn't ask. She found herself disappointed, though not at all surprised. The chief occultist liked to alternate between workshops and lectures, and today was a lecturing day. He loved the sound of his own voice, and delighted in his own phraseology. When he was getting ready to make a speech, he couldn't be distracted for long.

Still, she'd thought… well. The light of her eyes through the lenses produced a wholly unnatural beryl hue, and she'd seen its effect on many men (and some women) over the years. They were in awe of the amber, but they fell for the blue.

"Acroamatic Abatement hasn't had a Chief since 1966." Unable to hear her internal monologue, Deering steamrollered it with his external one. "Why? That's a long story, and you're not cleared for it. The important thing for our purposes is that since 1966, the Chief of Applied Occultism has done double duty. A lot of people think that means AcroAbate is under ApplOcc's wing, and it makes sense; we study, they destroy. We're on top, they're on the bottom."

"Security and Containment is on top."

Udo frowned at Imrich's interruption.

"And they won't ever let you forget it!" Deering leaned on the blackboard. The small classroom was no less pelagic than the rest of AO, so the white labcoat against the black slate stood out starkly against their aquamarine surroundings. She never found it hard to focus on Dougall Deering's lectures. "But you know what I mean, right? We have primacy. We're in charge. Well, that's not the case. Applied Occultism only exists because of Acroamatic Abatement. We're its due diligence. You see — and you will see it, if you give it a moment's thought — AcroAbate is the antithesis of what the Foundation stands for. It contains esoteric material only long enough to neutralize it. It's an entire Section, one of the two founding Sections of Site-43, dedicated to dispelling the magic. This is something we manifestly do not do elsewhere, at least not without extensive and intensive deliberation. The talks it took to turn that French-Canadian boogeyman into a skeleton took years, and an awful lot of peace of mind." Udo hadn't read much of that file — the version available to her clearance level was almost completely redacted — but from what she had read, this tracked. "AcroAbate, on the other hand, doesn't deliberate. We flush our gunk down the john, and the septic bed gets to work on it. Why is that allowed?"

Sometimes the questions were rhetorical. Nevertheless, eager to prove themselves, one of the three of them always responded. This time it was Udo. "The stuff our subjects secrete isn't uniquely anomalous. It's all just… byproducts. The original anomaly still exists, and since it's presumably still pumping out the gunk, we can always get more if we want it. But we can't store all that stuff, not if we had all the mineshafts in the world—"

"Or an army of tunneling water panthers," Rozálie chipped in, and Udo acknowledged her with a smile and a nod before continuing.

"—so there's little to no harm in just getting rid of what are essentially secondary anomalies."

Deering nodded, making eye contact again and maintaining it this time. "Precisely! And why do we know we're not missing anything important?"

She felt like she was missing something important. It was oddly hard to focus with him focused on her like that. "Because… ApplOcc runs enough tests to prove the secondaries are nothing special, nothing unique, and we keep running those tests over and over to make sure they haven't become special when we weren't looking."

"Right again!" Deering always divided his attention between the three of them, as public speakers were trained to do; from this point on, however, he was addressing her alone. "That's our raison d'etre: seeing just how much magic there is in the muck, and deciding whether or not to get rid of it based on what we find. Our core value at the Foundation is containment, so our instinct is to lock this stuff away in a big vat, monitor it indefinitely, research it, but under no circumstances abate it. As Udo said, that's impractical." Rozálie shifted in her chair; Udo barely noticed. "We'd be awash in esoteric effluence within a few short months. Failing containment, therefore, we consider application. Can we use this stuff for something? Can we make it work for us, then dispose of it after it's spent? Or does it possess no utility whatsoever? That's what defines our work process here, and that's what I want you thinking about every time you so much as glance at a new material. Is there something I can do with it? Is it more valuable to us intact, or in pieces, or in combination with something else, or do we need to simply get it gone?"

"This is why you showed us the skeleton," said Rozálie. Udo started; she'd been in something of a trance. She found that her chin was resting on her hand, and her arm was resting on the table. She straightened up.

"This is why I showed you the skeleton," Deering agreed, still watching Udo. "Consider it an extracurricular project, and consider it a competition, too, if that sort of thing actuates you. I'll tell you this for free: no abatement technique yet devised has been able to completely reduce the thaumic content of that sand. The bones? They're just bones, old and brittle and dry. But the Man of the Hour's sleeping dust has defeated the best minds we have here at Site-43, has in fact singly and individually defeated every scientist who's been kicked upstairs in the past few years. It's defeated me, and I don't defeat easy. I expect each of you to be thinking the exact same thing, right now: you're different."

She had, in fact, not been thinking that. For the first time in ages.

"You, like the materials we study, are special. You're not just taking up space here — you have a practical application, and you're going to show us all what it is." He pointed at Udo. "You're the one who's going to figure it out."

He eventually pointed at the others, too, each in turn, but it seemed like an afterthought. Udo beamed up at him, totally missing the despair etched onto Rozálie's face beside her.


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2002

9 September


Finding Stacey Laiken was easier desired than done. Udo thought about stopping by the Applied Occultism breakroom to ask around, but as she approached from the hall she saw the slim silhouette of Rozálie Astrauskas through the floor-to-ceiling windows, and shied away before the other woman could turn and notice her. Not opening that can of worms again. She thought she might have better luck at the duty desk, where two technicians monitored all the empty and occupied containment cells for fluctuations minor and major, twenty-four seven… but Imrich Sýkora was arguing heatedly with both of them, something about predictive versus stochastic disaster preparation protocols, and by the way he was waving his notepad in their faces she knew he'd been at it for quite some time. He certainly wouldn't stop for her.

In the end, she simply wandered.

Every cell was much like every other, save for the specific chambers they sat beneath and the specific pipes with their specific contents running through them. It was down in Acroamatic Abatement where the real divergence occurred: in addition to automated machinery performing a whole schedule of standardized neutralizations en masse, there were dozens on dozens of specialized mini-labs dedicated to deconstruction practices ranging from the simple to the almost entirely incomprehensible. She'd only been in a few of them so far.

Don't.

But it was too late. She knew where she was going, now. She turned the corner and strolled down a wide, empty hallway, ducking under the orange security tape which screamed CONTAINMENT BREACH LINE — DO NOT CROSS — CONTAINMENT BREACH LINE — DO NOT CROSS and heading for the single stairwell connecting Applied Occultism to the top of AAF-D. She'd been part of the response team, she was entitled to be here. Furthermore, she knew it was safe; after she'd breezed through the disaster area, helping to map out the hot spots and structural weaknesses and pockets of unreality with her pseudosentient cloud of sand, she'd parked it around the umbilical so that one of the roaming esomat teams could saturate the air with abatement fluid and comprehensively de-gunk the landing. ApplOcc needed to be totally clear of contamination, and contamination vectors; the work had to go on. So she pushed past the stairwell door and shuffled downward, fighting the faint urge to test each step — not because she was sure it was safe, but because she was sure she didn't care. She came out on AAF-D's third sublevel, and entered the clean zone.

An L-shaped corridor of labs had been sequestered from the wider mess by a thick membrane of antithaumic spellophane, shimmering yellow on the walls and floors. She walked past the sealed doors without checking the labels; she could have found her way to this room in particular by muscle memory alone, which was nearly the level she was operating at. So complete was her apathy, she didn't think to listen at the threshold before yanking down the handle and walking in…

…on Stacey Laiken, standing in a tangle of mangled machinery, arms crossed tight and sobbing theatrically.

Udo was overcome with the urge to back away and close the door again.

Laiken looked up, blue eyes bright in swollen red sockets, and asked: "Why here?"

Udo's mouth formed a syllable; she didn't know what the next syllable would be, so she bit the first one off.

"Why here?"

Udo shook her head. "I… I was just…" She waved her hands meaninglessly. "…what do you mean?"

Laiken unfolded her arms and gestured at the open door, which was labelled

TOOL-ASSISTED NADIROSIS

and asked again: "Why here? What… what do you know about this place?" Her voice cracked on every other word.

Udo had not come here to engage in conversation. She hadn't really wanted to find Laiken earlier, and she'd really wanted not to find Laiken now. "Uh. Dou— Dr. Deering told me it's where we… unmake gods."

Laiken stopped shaking, and stared. "What?"

"That's what he told me."

A glimmer of sunlight poked between the corners of the other woman's reddened eyes. "This room's for leeching out Akiva radiation." Akiva radiation was the Esoteric International measurement of theological energy; Deering's explanation had simply been poetic license.

Udo felt a nasty urge to press the issue on the dead man's behalf. "Akiva radiation, such as might be present in, for example…" The mild antagonism energized her a little. Just a little.

"Gods. Fine. You could unmake a god in here. I guess." Laiken wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her labcoat. "If you could get it through the door."

"Because gods are like couches?" Udo had no idea where that had come from.

Laiken stared at her again.

"Gotta turn them this way and that way to squeeze—"

"Because gods don't behave how we'd like them to. If they even…" She trailed off, and for an awful moment Udo thought she might be about to start blubbering again.

Intercession seemed vital. "What did you mean by 'Why this place'? Why are you here?"

Laiken sighed. It was a full-body sigh, a sigh of resignation. "He had it on his schedule for today. Dou… Dougall. He was coming here. Came here twice last week, and once the week before, and three times the week before that — twice in one day, even." She turned her baby blues on Udo again. "What could he have been working on?"

Udo felt sick. "Did he not keep notes? Or a journal?"

"If he did, I never saw it. And look at this." Laiken pointed up at the ceiling; it was coated in a layer of grime, stippled and matte, faintly salmon. "Side-effect of nadirosis — meaning someone's been leeching Akiva off the record — or side-effect of the breach, or…?"

Udo shook her head. "I'll take some samples. Run some tests."

Laiken finally smiled. It was a small smile, and it looked like it hurt. It hurt Udo too, but not quite as badly as what she said next: "I know you will, Rabbit."

What. What. What. What.

"That's what he called you, right? Because everything he ever asked you to do, everything that needed to be done, you always hopped right to it."

Udo felt faint. She put one hand on the doorframe, hoping it looked casual rather than load-bearing, and somehow managed a response: "Yeah. Yeah, I always did."


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2001

11 August


"Salt?" Rozálie slid the shaker to the centre of the table.

"Salt I can do." Udo picked the shaker up, and sprinkled a few grains into the palm of her hand before setting it back down. She pressed the tips of her fingers against the tips of her thumbs, and slowly rolled the crystals between them. In an instant, she could feel it in her fingernails, could feel her attention drifting — the background hum of the third sublevel cafeteria dropped away to nothing, and the glazed turquoise tiles on the walls lost their lustre — as some small part of her consciousness fled to the crystalline flakes trapped between the shaker's glass and steel. Salt always finds a way in there. The connection made, she snapped her fingers… and the cap screech-scraped off in one fluid motion, clattering to the formica tabletop.

Rozálie clapped. "Can you do it with pepper?"

"Not so easily." Udo brushed the salt out of her hand.

"Because it's more differentiated?"

"Because I'm allergic." And then she sneezed, a magnificent bit of timing courtesy: the universe.

"Ha, ha." Rozálie screwed the cap back on. "How about sand?"

Udo fished a Kleenex out of her labcoat pocket and dabbed pointlessly at her nose. Her sneezes were rarely productive. "Depends on the sand. Can't do much with the coarse stuff. Finer is better; back at 91 they grind it up real fine, seed it with Eve, and call it potentia harenae. Power sand. I brought a supply with me."

"Ever try sandman sand?"

Udo blinked. "This is going to sound stupid, but I didn't think about that until you said it just now."

Rozálie laughed. "Time to write up a project proposal."

Udo's mind was already whirring, but as she didn't have her work tablet and hated thinking the same thoughts twice, she decided to mask the noise with someone else's nattering. Rozálie could natter like nobody's business. "Your turn. What do you see? When you see people's auras, I mean?"

"A mess," the other woman answered immediately, as though she'd been waiting for Udo to ask. Considering she'd just been so solicitous about Udo's Talent, she probably had been. "I see a mess. And everyone's mess is different."

"What's m—" Udo started to ask, a product of the mental autopilot, before she caught herself. She cast about for a safer target and found one, at a distance (the cafeteria was cavernous): the head archivist, Dr. Blank, listening patiently to the head computer tech, Dr. Something-or-Other. "What's his mess?"

Rozálie squinted. Udo was surprised she could see out of so little lens. "Uh, general impression: sad."

"Aww. Why?"

"Lonely. Looks like long-term lonely, bands run deep." Udo was pretty sure the computer chief was Blank's girlfriend, so she found this revelation doubly depressing. "Scared, too."

"What of?"

Rozálie shrugged her bony shoulders. "Can't tell, not how it works. Probably that he'll always be lonely?"

"Well, that was depressing. You sure it's not a false positive? I hear that guy cracks jokes like he needs laughter to breathe."

"Sorry." Rozálie turned her back on the unhappy couple. "I see what I see. He's a real Code Pagliacci."

A more promising subject blundered into view, banging his knees against a table as he sat down and spilling soup everywhere. Udo pointed. "Do Wettle. Give me a complete and total rundown on Dr. William Wettle."

Rozálie's narrow eyes widened. "He's irritated."

"Well, yeah. He just spilled his—"

"No, he's… like… nothing but irritated. He's like a landscape through night-vision goggles. Only one colour, only gradations. He looks at other people, he's irritated. He looks at himself, he's irritated. Irritated left, irritated right." Wettle was in fact looking in all directions, presumably to see who'd witnessed his bouillabaisse blunder. "That guy lives in a generalized field of meta-irritation at absolutely everything, everywhere. Not even a speck of shame or worry, not that I can see. He's not even very annoyed, it's just that he's… only annoyed. Gotta admire the focus…"

She trailed off, and Udo turned to find out why. She needn't have bothered; the object of Rozálie's shifted attention was strolling right past their table. Dougall Deering was already looking at Udo, and smiling.

They both waved, Rozálie hesitantly, Udo with gusto. He rapped his knuckles on the table as he passed, by way of acknowledgement, and headed up to the service counter.

Colour was filling Rozálie's pasty white cheeks.

"What?"

The other woman only shook her head.


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2002

9 September


Udo had awoken to two notifications today. One was a mandatory counselling session with Nhung Ngo, which she had gotten out of the way early and gotten nothing from; the other she had put off until now, in the early afternoon, when she was sufficiently numb to just let it wash over her.

She returned her parents' video call.

Her mother picked up immediately, as she always did. Anjali Okorie would typically, by this point in her daily routine, have been elbows-deep in some eldritch corpse or else scrutinizing some massive thaumaturgic working, overseeing perhaps a dozen specialists and amending their chalk or ash or blood lines as she went. Today she wasn't even wearing her labcoat, and Udo realized just how badly she'd misjudged the urgency of this conversation.

"Udo." No term of affection; her mother was furious. "Nice of you to call."

Udo squirmed in her chair. It was a very comfortable chair; she'd spent her furnishings allowance on seats and surfaces, since her parents had sent her packing with more decorative elements than she had wall space to display with. Paintings of the Yorkshire countryside, carefully rolled up for later framing; a profusion of family portraits; her favourite books from childhood, which her father had socked away in his sentimental fashion. Udo had dutifully hung the art and filled up her bookshelf from the unopened box before sitting down at the terminal, realizing belatedly that she'd never really moved in until now, when she felt the least at home. She had to admit that the familial touches were not unpleasant, but combined with the full force of her mother's hurt disapproval, it made her private space suddenly a little too English to be borne. "I'm sorry, mom. I was busy."

Anjali nodded. "So Allan tells me."

"What?" Her parents knew the Director from his time at Site-91; to the extent that Allan McInnis had friends, the Okories were two of them.

"When you didn't bother responding, I put in a priority call. Allan was more than happy to hear from us." Each little barb caught on Udo's thin skin, as they always did. She shrunk down into the seat cushion. "There was a breach, Udo. You could have died. You realize the AAG tells us whenever something like this happens?" The Acroamatic Abatement Group was the Foundation's internal clearinghouse for esoteric waste disposal. "It might have been nice to receive a message from our daughter, just a little note to say 'Hi mom, hi dad, I'm not dead."

She should have felt guilty. She should have felt shame. Instead, she felt tired, and… "Thanks for asking how I'm doing, mom."

Her mother took a deep breath. "Alright. I'm sorry too. Are you okay? Getting enough sleep?"

Udo sniffed. "It's been less than a day. So, no. I'm not getting enough sleep. But I will soon."

"When's soon?" Her father slid into view, pushing her mother aside on the couch. "Hi Udo, you look like hell."

"Obi," her mother scolded.

"Well, she does. You're no help to anyone if you pass out, wunderkind."

Udo found herself looking from side to side, anything to avoid meeting their eyes on the monitor. "I'm not much help to anyone regardless. I don't even know…" She decided to keep the memory loss to herself. "It's been a lot, like I said. But I'm fine." She unfocused her eyes — they wouldn't be able to see, at their resolution — and pretended to look at them again. "Really, I'm fine. And I am sorry I didn't call." She considered making excuses, talking up her role in the investigation, but she made the very adult decision not to bother. Take credit for your mistakes.

"Allan told us about Dougall Deering." Her father had a sympathetic look by default, but it was extra sympathetic now. "How you holding up?"

"Yes," her mother added. "Will it affect your dissertation?" Obi gave his wife a sidelong glance, but didn't comment further.

"Well, you know. Redundancies. There's always redundancies." Udo hoped the redness in her eyes didn't transfer across the ocean.

"That's good." Her mother looked mildly mollified. "Our little work-in-progress needs extra attention, after all."

If it hadn't been for her session with Dr. Ngo, this turn of phrase wouldn't have reduced her to sudden tears the way it did.


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2001

13 September


Time stood still in the containment chamber.

"Are you absolutely sure about this?"

She nodded.

"If you were anybody but Obi Okorie's daughter, I wouldn't even consider allowing it."

She nodded again.

"Speak up," Deering snapped. "I can barely see you nodding in that suit."

She looked toward the opaque observation glass, and in a fit of bloody-mindedness, flashed him a thumbs-up.

He held down the mic button to make sure she could hear him sighing before he spoke again. "According to Mr. Sýkora, you have fifteen seconds. You ready?"

She smiled. "I was born ready."

On cue, the ancient skeleton shuddered on its mount and a cloud of sand burst out of its porous bones. The entire room was coated in cinnamon dust in an instant; this time, the vents stayed closed and the fans stayed off. She advanced, panting heavily in her thaumat suit. Unlike the indiscriminate esomat suits, this would allow her to interact with certain elements of the esoteric environment. An EVE (Elan-Vital Energy) mesh built into the gloves roughly mimicked the sensation of touch, enough for her to work her unique brand of magic. Still, she'd have felt more comfortable walking around naked. She'd only worn a breathing apparatus once before, scuba diving in the Outer Hebrides, and it wasn't a happy memory.

She'd nearly drowned.

"Calm down." Deering's digitized voice was stern. "You can trust the rebreather."

"I do," she lied. "I'm just excited." This, at least, was true. She shifted in place to check her black booties, and exhaled. "Stuff gets everywhere."

"It does," Deering agreed. "And we're sitting on enough of it to lay out a beach."

"Sleepy beach." Udo reached out to tap the skeleton's sternum. A faint puff of sand hovered in the air in front of her.

She stuck her right glove into it, and clenched. She worked the grains between her thumb and forefinger, grinding them together, feeling that exceptional immeasurable something through the thaumic membrane which told her that she and her medium were already connected. She began churning the heavy air with her left hand, like an outboard motor in swamp water. The texture of the grains was now a permanent part of her, a sensation as indelible as the memory of her first kiss, or the leg she'd broken in Antigua when she was eight, or the taste of fruit pastilles. She released them into the tiny, sparkling cyclone, and increased the speed and radius of her spin.

She could feel her sensory homunculus warping to account for this change to her body. She was no longer merely Udo Okorie, but also a surface skein stretched across an entire containment chamber, plus a whirling central cloud. She could hear through the sand. She could taste it. She could feel the recycled air that could not penetrate her suit, could sense the crystals buzzing across her grey matter, sanding her down, scratching the itch in her head which magic always brought on.

"Report."

She laughed. Being asked to report the sensation of thaumaturgy was never not comical. "Uh." Her head was quite literally in the clouds. "It's… responsive. Very responsive." She laughed again. "Very, very responsive." She clapped her hands over her head, then traced an arc down to the Third Position of Sigilistic Augury. She closed her eyes, and sang, "It's better than… oh, yes."

Deering sounded bemused. "Vent controls at your discretion."

Here goes… something.

"Now," she whispered. The suit mic picked it up just fine.

The vents slid open and the fans began to roar, and she opened her eyes, and she clamped down hard on the vertigo and sympathetic pain as the sand was sucked out of the chamber and into the collector. She felt simultaneously squashed together and torn apart as the grains joined with each other but left her… presence, and she forced her human body to remain upright. Don't let him think anything's wrong. She wanted, no, she NEEDED to impress him. No weakness, only competence. You're going to be the one. You're going to show them all.

She kept twirling her hand in the empty air, fighting back vomit as her stomach insisted she was whooshing through a sleek steel conduit. And then she was

oh my GOD

on her knees

oh my GOD

a vast cauldron of herself

"Udo? Are you alright?"

a being of billions, sentience in parts per million, a drop in a bucket but also the bucket and I am the sand man they are the sand men I am the bucket

"Udo?!"

and she could feel the power and she could taste the power and she took a deep, deep breath

"Get her out of there."

and drew it in

"Close the vents!"

and the lungs of her mind filled with ice cold electricity which made her gasp with pain and pleasure, and she recalled the sand in the Hebrides, thrashing against and within it on the seafloor, struggling to breathe, and through the crystalline refraction of the final few airborne grains she saw her tiger's eyes burning in the dark, like sun through dappled waves.

It was dark, incidentally, because she had fallen unconscious with her eyes open. By the time her cheek met the faceplate met the spotless china floor, she was merely a slim young woman with fire dancing between her neurons and sparks between her fingertips in a crumpled teal suit, knuckles spasming in tune.

She felt the vault of sand die as she retreated back into her smaller self, and was only Udo, asleep.

In love.

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