The Mourning After
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rating: +44+x

The Mourning After



9 September

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada

Compared to the other Chairs and Chiefs of Site-43, Dougall Deering was on a whole other level — specifically the second sublevel, entirely occupied by his demesne of Applied Occultism, colloquially known as 'upstairs'. This was politely cited as the reason so few of his colleagues had anything much to say about him after his death; out of sight, out of mind, but no less important to the overall work for that. An even more polite explanation, so polite it came with its own security clearance restriction, was that the head occultist's very identity was a sensitive matter. The Serpent's Hand and other militant magical factions not infrequently took potshots at 'jailors' dabbling in the mystic arts, and Deering had been dabbler-in-Chief. His only known relative, J&M tech Philip Deering, was expressly forbidden to know that he and his brother both worked at the same facility. Nobody had ever asked Dougall why this should be so, and nobody therefore knew whether the prohibition should be lifted in the event of his death. When the event passed, parsimony ruled: it wasn't.

Deering's living situation testified to this shroud of secrecy. Most high-ranking personnel at 43 had commodious quarters in Habitation and Sustenance, but the better set kept residences topside in the sleepy town of Grand Bend. Deering didn't. He instead dwelled in a complex of rooms on the east end of ApplOcc, to which only he (and select cleaning staff) had regular access. The entrance boasted a keycard lock not tied into the Site-wide permissions network; in theory, only the Director and the Chief himself could unlock it.

He had, however, made exceptions. One of those exceptions now crept like a thief up to his front door.


The items Udo intended to burgle belonged, in fact, to her. Deering would have had no qualms about her retrieving them, were he still alive. He would have been equally untroubled by her trespassing on his private space in his absence, crossing the shag carpeting to slip into the master bedroom, making a brief detour into the ensuite loo to empty a locked cabinet drawer before doing the same at his bedside dresser. Since he was dead, she imagined him finding all of this doubly untroubling.

When everything was safely stowed in the satchel she wore at her hip, she left the keys in the compartments they unlocked and made good her escape. As Deering's unique security situation prohibited the presence of cameras in his quarters, her passing left no trace.

As had his own, so far as most people were concerned.



14 September

She dreamed of moonlight on a stretch of unbroken red desert, and a fire approaching from the darkness ahead. She sat on the sand and waited, waited for the skies to echo with its heavy tread, for the screeching of the carrion birds, for—

Udo awoke in a strange place. The walls were dark, pitted and polished concrete. She reached out to touch one, and realized as her fingertips brushed the cool surface that god damn it, I've been living here for MONTHS. Every morning was the same: first the derealization, then the realization. She was lying in her comfortable bed, still wearing her clothes from the test — minus the labcoat, thaumat suit, and shoes. She felt…

Okay, this is new. She felt refreshed, invigorated, excited, and several other adjectives rarely associated with waking up after one had passed the threshold between child and adulthood. She sat bolt upright, turned her head, and saw them sitting in her dining nook.

"Out like a light, up like a shot," Deering remarked.

"Right on schedule," his companion smiled. She was pink-skinned and blonde, and holding a cardboard cup full of something which steamed. "I love it when magic plays by the rules."

"We don't really know how her rules work," Deering reminded her as Udo slid off the bed. "For all we knew, that powder could have kept her under for a decade. I'm surprised she burned through it all to your timetable, Stace."

"She's a lick of flame, alright." The female researcher nodded at Udo as she approached. "Careful she doesn't blow that powder up in your face."

"This wordsmith is Dr. Stacey Laiken," Deering explained as Udo took the third and final chair. "My partner."

Udo glanced at their left hands to see whether the double entendre had been intentional or accidental. Laiken was wearing an engagement ring; Deering was not. That settled that.

Stacey Laiken looked like a chipmunk. She had great big cheeks, a pudgy smile, and a slight frame. Her long, straight hair was so blonde it was almost yellow, and she peered back at Udo through beady blue eyes with an almost bovine placidity. "The shock of absorbing that much sleeping powder conked you right out." Laiken sipped at what Udo was willing to bet was tea; she looked too milquetoast even for coffee. "I figured the raw thaums you took in would boil out within the hour, and I was right. Feeling fresh?"


"Very. What happened to the sand?"

"It's just sand." Deering's attention was fixed on her again. "Absolutely no anomalous qualities. I'd let my kids play in it."

"Like heck," Laiken objected. "If even one grain is still active — just a drop in the bucket, pardon the joke — it could turn the whole sandbox into a sand bed. I'd rather my kids were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed."

This was a lot. Udo hadn't been aware that people who would unironically say 'Like heck' still existed; the idea that one such person could follow it up with a cliché, apologize for the cliché, call the cliché a joke, and then fire off a second cliché… well, that person's likelihood of having sex often enough to generate offspring seemed quite low. Laiken's children were almost definitely theoretical.

Wait a second.

"Wait a second." Udo pointed at Deering. "Are you saying I abated it? All of it?"

Deering nodded. "Winner winner, buy her dinner."

"An abatement most acroamatic," Laiken agreed. "In the sense that it's so esoteric, only you know how you did it."

Udo sat back, frowning. "Hope you weren't counting on that. I remember taking it all in… and that's all."

"Maybe that's all you did." There was a folder on the table, and Deering tapped it. "LeClair did an EVE count while you were asleep — you didn't even feel the needle — and guess what? You're off the chart."

"Enough magic inside to build a sand castle fit for a king," Laiken chuckled. She actually chuckled. At that. "Assuming it comes out the usual way, in applications, you shouldn't need your batteries charged for a long, long while yet."

"Enjoy the extra oomph while it lasts," Deering summarized.

Udo felt dazed. "I guess I will. Uh…" She squirmed in her seat; the extra energy was already driving her wild, but it wouldn't do to show it. She needed to remain professional, for Deering. And Laiken. "I doubt I could explain what I did in technical terms, though. Not well enough to outline a process."

"No need," said Deering. "Not for another few months, at least."


Deering clasped his hands. "That wasn't just the recent excretions, Udo." Laiken glanced sharply at him. "That was the whole shebang. You abated every gram of pixie dust that's come out of old man boogey in the past year and a half."

"Seven tons worth," said Laiken. "There's a five cubic metre cistern on F-D 4 with your name on it."

Udo boggled at them. "Uh."

"Uh," Laiken laughed.

"A 'holy shit' would be not inappropriate," Deering remarked.

"Holy shit," said Udo. Laiken twitched. "Do you have any of the dust on hand?"

Deering reached down and produced a burgundy leather satchel. He pushed it across the table. "Thought you might like to… what?"

She was fairly vibrating now. "See it? I can feel it." She pointed at the satchel. She'd never done anything like this before, not without preparation, but…

He was watching her closely. She decided to chance it.

She flicked her forefinger off her thumb, and with an almost-invisible spray of sand, the satchel popped open. It was fully one foot away from her. Laiken gasped.

Udo began to trace signs in the air, turning in her chair, ignoring them both. Focus on the process. The sand streamed out of the satchel, bands forming and fanning across her dorm like rings around a gas planet. She experimented with thickness, with patterns, with length, reversing and randomizing each flow, conducting the grains with each wave of her hand. She'd never felt such an affinity for a substance before. She'd never even touched it with her bare hands.

"Can you talk?" Deering whispered.

"Talk?!" she exclaimed. "I could f—" She coughed, and shook her head. Her hair went everywhere. She felt like pulling on it, or having someone else do it for her. "I don't even need to focus. I can talk."

"Why can you control it without touching it first?" Deering was detail-oriented. "I didn't think your Talent worked that way."

"It doesn't." She sent a streamer of sand between the bands of his spectacles, reclaiming every crystal on the other side. "I have to get reacquainted every time, like the memory gets used up in the casting. But not with this stuff."

"It must be the absorbed energy," Laiken speculated. "Sympathetic affinity."

Udo was lost in thought. "This stuff… this stuff. I'd know it anywhere. I can do anything with it."

The room was now a Zen garden in three dimensions, a work of silicon art.

A castle fit for a queen.

"You certainly can," Laiken breathed. Deering barely seemed to hear her.


16 September

"What do you know about Dr. Deering's partner?"

Imrich looked up from his tablet copy of Impractical Magic: Theoretical Thaumaturgy by one Arik Euler, and almost smiled. It was a friendly gesture, by his standards. "St. Laiken?"

Udo laughed. "St. Laiken. Wonder if I would've derived that one."

"Probably not. She's on my committee, and she's a literal saint." Imrich scratched at the faded paisley of his couch armrest; junior researchers got the least-modern dorms. "Okay, so she's not a literal saint. I think TheoTelo actually has one of those. But she's the closest thing this side of canonization: never gets angry, never gets frustrated, never gossips, never curses — and by that I mean she never swears and she never casts harmful spells."

Udo inclined her head to acknowledge the joke, and winced to acknowledge its explanation.

"If she's ever thought a negative thought, she's kept it to herself, and every positive thought she has comes straight out her mouth. This woman just… extemporaneously compliments people. Even people she doesn't know. She's a sweetheart."

Udo leaned back, hands on the carpet, and grinned at him. "Sure sounds like you're sweet on her."

This time Imrich did smile. "I despise sweet people. And she's not my type."

"She looks like a chipmunk."

"So does your girlfriend."

That took her a moment. "Rozálie isn't my girlfriend, and anyway she looks like a squirrel."

"What's the difference?"

"Squirrels have a bigger overbite."

"Go tell her that. I can predict the results without recourse to my notepad."

Udo took the bait. "What's the deal with the notepad, anyway?"

Imrich swung into a prone position, and clapped his tablet to his chest. "How's your performance review going to go this month?"


The sudden change of topic caught her off guard, so instead of complaining, she answered. "Pretty well, I think?"


She sat up straight again, wheels turning. "Had some great project synergy; derived a method for turning Jesus milk into Jesus yogurt, then distilling it down to selenium, then derived a way to strip the GOC's telekill paint which also condenses it into zinc pyrithione, which in combination with the selenium and a bit of chemical excitation via vim harenae can produce a sort of thaumically-charged Head n' Shoulders what works a treat on that parasitic dandruff spore. Also got real good at rattling off streams of pure goddamn nonsense, which I hear is a transferable skill around here."

He scoffed. "You could be making every inch of that up, and I wouldn't know. But fine, okay. Your performance is good, your creativity is good, and most importantly your boss thinks you're hot."

She certainly felt hot, after that remark. "I beg your f—"

"Your subconscious is making up a situational maths system, and doing its sums. Good work is two, good looks are two, two and two make four out of five for promotion. If you were someone important's kid, that would get you up to five — and hey, good news!" Imrich clapped his hands, handily preventing a second indignant outburst. "It doesn't take a genius to run that mental math, crude though it is. Now, what if you could see the real systems? The backend? Not just humming along with the harmony of the spheres, but being able to read the sheet music? That's me. That's what I can do."

"What the fuck does that mean." She didn't make it sound like a question because, after his choice of words, she wasn't at all sure she wanted an answer.

"It means I have potentiality vision." He slipped his notepad out of his shirt pocket, and slapped it on his chest to a beat she couldn't hear. "I can see things before they happen, because I can see predictive traces. It's kind of like watching a flightplan projection, only I can see those overlapping lines for everything. Not just people. Not just objects. Concepts, events, an interconnected web." He was mimicking a spinning wheel with his free hand and one foot. "I can predict the short-term future at a glance, no figuring involved. For the bigger stuff all I need is this notepad, a pencil, some time and some trig."

She shook her head. "That's barely magic at all. Where's the wonder in it?"

He shifted on the couch to give her the stink eye. "Are you kidding? Where's the wonder in knowing that all the information you need to predict your future is floating an inch in front of your chest, where you're anchored to the line of your probable destiny?"

She narrowed her eyes mischievously. "Is that why you're always staring at my chest?"

"Well, I see the patterns more readily when I'm relaxed."

She laughed. "Alright, let's say I… don't believe you. Wow, hear how easily I said that? Almost like it's not hypothetical."


"How would you convince me?"

"Oh, let's see." He tapped the end of his nose with the notepad. "I could predict something very complex, something totally opaque from our present perspective, and tell you the outcome ahead of time."

"Fine, but I get to pick."

"Yes, you'll have to. Because as we've established I don't have the faintest idea what you're doing, and I don't really need that information outside of this exercise, so I'm unlik—"

"I'm starting a project with the vim harenae," she interrupted. He'd otherwise have continued his stream of offensiveness indefinitely. "The sandman sand, with Dr. Deering. If you can tell me the outcome before it's over — let's say, by the first of October — I'll… whatever. What's in it for you?"

"A date," he said instantly.

Her eyes widened. "Alright, wow. Didn't expect that. Uh—"

"With Astrauskas."

Her eyes widened further. "Jesus, I don't know if I can commit to that. You guys get along about as well as—"

"A date between Astrauskas and you." He sat up. "That woman is so fixated, it's literally tangling probability in a radius around her. I win, you fix."

She blinked a few times; her temperature was definitely rising now. "Well, that was awkward. But sure; you're on." It was easy enough to acquiesce, because she still didn't really believe him.

"Better make it a dinner date; she can't talk as much if her mouth is full. Of course, there are other metho—"

"MOVING ON," she interrupted. "On the topic of Talents: you said Laiken's on your committee. So, what can she do? What's her Talent?"

"Nobody knows."

She blew a raspberry. "One would hope she knows."

"Sure, but she's not saying." Imrich kicked his feet up on the coffee table, dislodging a pile of research papers — hers, of course — onto the floor. She tried not to twitch. Laiken twitched a lot, and it was irritating. "Personally I think she has the magical ability to not notice she's working for an arguably evil worldwide truth suppression conspiracy. Nobody at the SCP Foundation ought to be that goddamn chipper."

It was hard to argue with that, but it was also hard not to argue with Imrich, so she tried anyway. "Maybe she just… focuses on her work."

"What about our work do you think would make a person feel upbeat? And Laiken sees the bad and the good equally. She consults on almost every project, Deering loops her in for both initial and final analysis."

"Hmm." The wheels were now spinning very rapidly indeed. "Wonder what he sees in her that we don't."

Imrich shrugged. "Maybe he's got a lot of seed he needs to get rid of."

They both let that one sit for a moment.

"You didn't—"

"Yeah, I definitely didn't mean it like that."

They held back the laughter for another few seconds.


26 September

In her old life, trying to start a fire had looked something like a comedy routine. She'd clap up some dust, catch it on the edge of her middle finger, and snap with her thumb. And snap. And snap. And, all too often, snap again. The first time most people saw it, they thought she was doing a disposable lighter joke, but no; she simply couldn't excite the dust to ignition every time. She couldn't always feel it right, snap though she might.

With the red dust, things were different. One snap, one flame, each time without fail. Drawing sigils on the ground had once been tedious work, as any break would stall the working. But with this new reagent, sparks jumped eagerly from grain to grain no matter how uneven the gaps. She was actually forced to draw broader, more precise designs, lest the sparks jump the tracks and run their courses out of sequence, like accidentally knocking over a Domino Rally set before it was ready to fall — or like a runaway brain, synapses firing against her own intent. And these were just the minor plays; the next one changed the game entire.

The dust was light, and hung in the air languidly — appropriate, for what had once been sleeping powder. She found that she could keep it aloft indefinitely with the merest motion of her hands. The gestures came instinctively, as if she had always known them, had been born knowing them, and this allowed her to do something she had once considered impossible: cast thaumaturgical workings on the fly, standing up, in mid-air. She drew the signs in the clouds of dust, and the red grains burned with angry yellow fire, and with a flick of her wrist she could send a gout of flame or a whip of sand or a dart of flash-melted glass soaring away. She could cast warding spells she'd learned to pass her competency tests back home in England despite knowing she could never use them in a practical setting, not with the way her magic worked. It now worked quite differently indeed.


She didn't know how she'd ever managed, before the dust. Before Site-43.

Before Dougall Deering.

Rozálie clapped as the gypsum target block caught fire, and wiped the sweat from her brow. "Wow. Just… wow."

Udo grinned as she punched a button on the wall. A screen of fire-retardant glass slid into place, and they watched the target fizzle out. She felt lightheaded; using the dust as a delivery system meant separating herself from herself, and also consuming a bit of her own makeshift mind with red-hot flame. It was not unlike huffing gas, or any other brain cell-destroying process, minus the fact that she was operating with extra cells to begin with.

"You keep this up, they'll tap you for MTF duty." Rozálie swung her complex chain of ponytails off her exposed chest, and onto her back. She was wearing, as she always did, a tank top. "Udo Okorie, battlemage."

Udo saw that Rozálie's skin was beaded with sweat. She felt more than a little clammy herself. Despite her perfect control of the sand, all that excess heat had to go somewhere; she'd bled it into the air via a series of concentric rings, raising the room's ambient temperature by several degrees. Said rings were slowly flowing back into the satchel which sat on the shelf before her, where agents set down their service weapons between shot clusters. "Thaumaturges don't get a lot of field deployments. Too high a chance of breaking the Veil." One wrong magical move in a public place could easily bring down the Foundation's thin veneer of universal normalcy; worse, it would call down the ire of the Global Occult Coalition. The UN's secret magic police didn't like it when unauthorized non-governmental entities dabbled too overtly in the miraculous.

Rozálie shrugged, patting her on her exposed shoulder. "That's fine. Stay safe and sound down here, with… us."

Her hand lingered for a moment, then she turned with a sudden blush and headed for the door.

Udo snatched up the satchel, closed it, and jogged after her. "How's your dissertation?"

The other woman was already in the hall. A pair of agents, a colossal man and a towering woman, were strolling by; the firing range was located in the yellow-toned concrete tunnels of Security and Containment's southeastern outpost. "Fine," Rozálie responded quietly. "No better or worse than the average, on track to graduate in three."

"Months?" Udo gulped. "Jeez, that's way ahead of—"

Rozálie suddenly glared at her. "Years, Udo, years. We only just started."

Udo nodded, hoping her friend would think she was turning red from the fire and exertion. "Right, I know, of course. Brain's a bit frazzled, after all the, you know. Ooompfsh." She mimed an explosion.

Rozálie rolled her eyes. "You and your ooompfsh. How's your dissertation?"

"Good," she lied. In truth she could've been done it already, if she'd stuck with her original proposal.

If something more interesting hadn't come along.


12 November

The skeleton watched her with empty sockets and salacious grin, ticking down the seconds before its dazzling daily display.

"Can you feel it?"

Udo glanced at Deering. "I can feel the temperature in the chamber — it's a few degrees cooler than in here. I can feel stillness in the air, since the air only cycles when the dust arrives." She swished her mouth, and winced. "And it tastes like I've got sand in my mouth."

He shook his head, but not in negation. She understood; she was as surprised as he was. Normally she was aware of the dirt and dust around her, but being able to actually sense through it? That was beyond the bounds of everyday paranormality. To be able to inhabit the few tenacious grains of faerie dust which had stuck in the skeleton's pores, or in the floor tile grouting lines, and map out that space in touch and taste, with a thick chamber wall in the way… well, that was nothing short of remarkable, in any company.

"Amazing," he finally remarked. "Are you ready?"


She nodded. "Yes sir. You want to see amazing?" She glanced down at the clock on the console, then pursed her lips. "I'll show you amazing."

Right on the dot, at seven o'clock, the silicon fireworks burst into being. This time, the fans didn't come on. This time, the red cloud filled the room. This time…

…she closed her eyes, and breathed. Her breath was scratchy. She itched all over. She wriggled her fingers, scratched her palms, and with her eyes shut tight she sculpted.

There was no science to it. There was no sense to it. She felt like she was rolling naked on the beach, getting sand in all her orifices, abrading her body both inside and out, and she squirmed through it. She imagined herself buried alive, and digging her way out with spiral motions. She breathed hot earth. She swallowed big gasping gulps of iron powder. She vigorously scrubbed at her face, as though showering, then carried the motion on down across the whole of her body. Her skin was scalding to the touch, pliant and rough.

She opened her eyes, and saw herself mirrored in the non-reflective glass. She saw Dougall Deering staring at her, at both of her, one at a time.

She opened her other eyes, and saw her other self, and her other self saw her seeing her, and she saw…

She, the she she had always been rather than the she she had just created, staggered back, clutching at her forehead, overwhelmed by the recursive image of her self and her sand-self reflected endlessly.

Dougall caught her.

She leaned back in his arms, and willed the sand to close its eyes, then looked again.

Her doppelganger hung on the armature, the skeleton completely enveloped in red sand. It was a perfect duplicate of her, down to the waving streamers of granular hair and the heaving chest and the proud features and jawbone and cheekbones and ribs and the gentle curves of…

"Oh," she said. It was nearly a squeak.

The sand-woman was, of course, completely naked. Udo gently wormed out of Deering's arms, and glanced up at him.

He wasn't looking at the sand woman. "What do you feel now?"

Both of her forms were filled with nervous energy. Both of them itched. She didn't say that.

What she said was "I can feel everything," and the voice came from the chamber speaker. Together they watched as the silicon apparition flashed a crimson smile.




9 September

Not everything at Site-43 is where it is for a reason, beyond the obvious: the early priorities radiate away from the topside elevator, and the later ones radiate from them. The morgue, however, was placed with precise intentionality. It sits in the centre of Health and Pathology, with easy access to the wards, the medical research wing, the dispensary and the clinic, and even the offices of Psychology and Parapsychology. H&P is something like a hospital, and while not all the cases under its care are critical, an awfully high percentage are spectacularly fatal. Like the document circulation tracks in Archives and Revision or the holding cells in Security and Containment, it's important that the morgue's feeder systems enjoy uncomplicated access.

There is, in fact, a corpse chute from S&C. It has eleven separate apertures above, and two below: one for dumping dead things, and another for dumping dead things that might still be dangerous.

— Blank, Lines in a Muddle

Udo came in through the main entrance. Dougall Deering had been granted the same honour, on a wheeled gurney with a sheet over his broken body. It wouldn't do to dump a Level 4 researcher's corpse down a funnel, like so much garbage. Udo had been too busy with the breach investigation to witness that grim procession — by design — and she hadn't been in to visit him in the interim, either. Now that the loose ends were all tied up, it seemed only proper to pay her respects.

Not that her intentions were entirely respectable.

Deering was still lying in state, a preservative charm on his body to prevent the immediate onset of decay. (He'd been dead too long before discovery to prevent rigor mortis.) This, unlike the chute bypass, had not been a matter of respect. His cause of death was still undetermined, and when that happened to one of the Joint Chairs and Chiefs, well, entropy would have to wait for the investigation to close.

She busied herself with her satchel, putting off examination of the naked body stretched across the stainless steel table for as long as possible. The bag was filled to bursting with vim harenae and tightly-compressed bonemeal, and after confirming that the blue steel floor was spotless — if there'd been any spots, she could have felt them — she began scooping out big handfuls of each and dumping them at her feet. The hairs on the back of her neck were already standing up in anticipation, the energy of the sand remembering and resonating with its point of origin.

When the satchel was empty, she looked at the dead man.

A metal clamp kept his head in place, since he'd broken his neck in such a way that it naturally twisted to hide his face. With this mechanical intervention it was possible to imagine, had she not already seen the truth in his sightless brown eyes, that he was merely in suspended animation. His skin was pallid, and even the bodily motion that normally accompanied the buildup and release of gases was absent, but if she looked at the corpse just so she could almost imagine…


LeClair's autopsy report had concluded that whatever the cause of Deering's death might have been, it hadn't originated with him. There had been external intervention, whether intentional or just some perverse extension of the AAF-D containment failure. The top doc hadn't thought there were any more answers to be had from the Chief's mortal remains; when Udo had expressed skepticism, she'd been invited to look for herself.

She finally allowed herself to take in the full form of her subject. It wasn't as bad as she'd expected, probably because she'd gotten thoroughly drunk on heather ale beforehand, but the pit in her stomach still rumbled as she reached out to touch the dead man's calf. It was cold. She could feel the bone. She could feel the bone, thanks to the thin coat of meal still sticking to her hand and pressed against the clammy skin. She closed her eyes and pictured it, as her left hand pointed imperatively at the floor and began to stir. She could feel the tiny whirlwind of packed bone separating into clumps, then clusters, then individual grains, and then the hard part started. Her mother had once tried to teach her how to play piano, and even though the exercise as a whole had been largely futile, one piece of advice had stuck with her: "You need to practice consciously until you can perform unconsciously. Your brain can't keep up with all the details; it'll interfere, it'll forget. So what you need to do is run the music through your brain and into your fingers, over and over, until your muscles remember." She was relying on that muscle memory now, that and the map of Dougall Deering's skeletal structure she could glimpse through the thaumic connection between her warm hand and his cold corpse.

She didn't have to open her eyes to know that it was finished, so she didn't. She wasn't much interested in seeing the hollow simulacrum of Deering's skeleton staring down at her from just a few feet away.

The next step, she could barely explain in biological terms. The rules of micamancy were poorly-understood, not least because she was the only known practitioner of the art, but they depended on the acquisition and utilization of knowledge derived from particles. Next to shortcuts like the ground-up bonemeal, her powers were most effective on human subjects when they exploited a network she could only barely sense — tiny particles called granules within the cells. Tapping into these, jumping off from the skeletal structure, expanded her consciousness threefold; she was able to see, to understand the connection between each of Deering's bodily systems: integumentary, muscular, lymphatic, et cetera. She stirred counter-clockwise now, and could feel the rush of air as the red sand leapt up between and around the makeshift armature. Her mind was buzzing, and she found herself standing on the tips of her toes and craning her neck back to work out the sudden and euphoric tension invading each of her joints in turn. Even the dead cells which made up Dougall Deering were capable of expanding her perceptual horizons, and the feedback was… was…

Dead cells. Dougall Deering's dead cells.

Dougall Deering is dead.

She gasped, and opened her eyes. The loss of concentration had come just after the worst possible moment; the golem stood before her, fully-formed, and she drew in a deep breath on its behalf. Its chest heaved, the sand-hairs on its sand-chest floating dreamily in the ventilated breeze. It was uniformly red, eyes flat and unshaded, expression slack and stupid. It wasn't him.

"Dougall," she whispered anyway, and it cracked its broken neck back into shape to make what passed for eye contact. At the same time, it whispered the name back to her. It couldn't not, since she was both of them.

She consciously suppressed that aspect of the connection, then reached out to touch the break with her left hand. The 'bones' distended the sand-skin in an ugly fashion, just as with the real corpse. Each grain of sand was resonating in sympathy with the cells in Deering's body, the flakes of his skin, even the keratin of his hair, and she examined the correlations with her trebled processing power. She found herself massaging the neck, and recoiled in sudden disgust.

"It's not the neck," she muttered. Nothing more esoteric than a sudden drop and a sharp stop had caused that.

She peered into the empty sockets, visualizing the ophthalmic and central retinal arteries, focusing on them, receiving their delayed feedback. Physically, organically, there was nothing wrong with them. Thaumaturgically…

There was something there, but she found herself unable to focus on it.

The golem's mouth was moving.

"Wh," it whispered.

"Why," she whispered back at it.

"Wh," it whispered again.

She reached up to touch its grainy chin, not altogether that different from Deering's meticulously-trimmed beard. "Why, Dougall?" She didn't clarify what she meant; what was the point? She was alone in the morgue with a dead man.

Some small part of her engorged mind was still working on the problem of the severed arteries, and reconstructing the pathways of Deering's brain, and the signals it was getting didn't make any sense. In this way they corresponded perfectly well to the signals coming from her own brain. She wanted to understand. She wanted to forgive him. She wanted to forget him, most of all, which was difficult since at present they were one and the same.

"What?" it said, and she suddenly realized what the signals were saying, and why she was having such trouble focusing on them. It hit her like a freight train, all of her all at once, and the sand sculpture staggered in place at her loss of concentration.


Her hands balled into fists. "More secrets, Dougall? More fucking secrets?" She was crying. The sand wasn't crying, but its 'skin' was puckering just as though it was. Its mouth was hanging open, still mouthing that single question: what?

She put a fist through its face, fingers snatching up the hippocampus on their way out the back of the sand-skull. The head caved in, and she felt a dozen pinpricks as the tenuous bone structure broke against her knuckles, and in an instant the empty golem was just a pile of red and white dust on the morgue floor.

She stood there for a moment, right hand still clenched tight around the grainy matter, conscious that her heart was racing, conscious that one hand was bleeding. She unhooked the satchel from her belt, and threw it in the corner before spinning up the particles on the floor and directing them back into their appropriate compartments.

She'd find a way to get the blood out later. For now, she had more interesting questions to ask.

She stalked out of the morgue, makeshift brain-stalk still in hand.



18 November

There was nothing strange about being ignored by Imrich Sýkora. He did what he wanted, and didn't much care how that interacted with social niceties. If he'd simply passed her by without a word while she made her way to Dougall's office, well, she wouldn't have thought twice about it.

When he turned and beetled away in the opposite direction, however, that got her attention. "Hey!"

He didn't answer, and dodged down a side passage.

She checked her watch. She was early, as she always was for these meetings. She could afford to take the detour, see what was up with her friend. The fact that he counts as a friend says a lot about how I've used my time down here.

She followed him. He led her, via a circuitous route, to their shared office on the south end of ApplOcc. The door was open, and he slipped inside; she slipped her hand into the crack, preventing him from closing it. "Hey. Hey!"

He pushed back into the hall, nearly knocking her over, and snarled: "What."

She stared at him. His heavy brow was crossed, and his lips had tightened into a snarl. "Imrich? What's wrong?"

He pointed at her.

She looked down at his finger, then up at his face. "Me? Something's wrong with me?" She recalibrated. "I was just gonna ask—"

"If I finished my calculations?" He huffed. "If I know what you're going to do? Yeah, golden girl, I know. I fucking know." Their shoulders collided as he stalked back down the way they'd come.

Bemused and aching, Udo leaned back on the doorframe.

What the hell was that?

"Close the door."

Udo started. Rozálie was sitting at one of the battered old particle board desks, Imrich's notepad in front of her. Her eyes were red.

Udo walked into the office—

"On your way out," the other woman snapped.



She hadn't felt this lost and confused since the first day she'd woken up at Site-43. She'd been snubbed in immediate sequence by fully half of the people she knew in this blue-green underground tilescape, and she didn't even know Laiken all that well. She was trying not to focus on it, but following Dougall Deering through the mazelike warren of corridors, armature and attached skeleton in tow, wasn't helping. She could barely hear the squeaking of the wheels over the thrumming of three redundant air conditioning systems, the gurgling of dozens of pipes and an assortment of less regular, less identifiable sounds from all quarters, but still her worries spoke louder.

There wasn't another soul in AAF-D. It was too early for most of their peers to be stirring, but this experiment, like the last, had to happen at a specific moment. Imrich had supplied the precise timing; was his outburst something to do with that? And what had he told Rozálie?

"Here." Dougall produced his keycard. She glanced at the sign on the door, fully cognizant that signs in AcroAbate were like entries in a thesaurus: functionally useless unless you already knew what they meant and had merely forgotten, dangerous to act on without that foreknowledge. It was certainly the case here:



Dougall tapped his keycard on the lock, and the door swung open on well-greased silent hinges. "Theological demotion. Never been used. But if we ever do need to un-deify a deity, we'll do it in here." He stepped inside, and smiled back at her. "It's a pretty special room, because the lock on the inside and the lock on the outside are two different locks." The smile became a smirk. "Seems fair play to let you know that before you step in."

She glanced at the keycard slots. "Why's it set up like that?"

"On the inside, so nobody walks in and interrupts your alone time with the Almighty. On the outside, in case you go in there to take a god apart, and it takes you apart instead. You can lock yourself in and wrestle with your demons for however long it takes, then use your best judgement — and we can second-guess your best judgement from the outside, keep you contained if we think you might have, for example, apotheosized." He cocked his head to one side, as if acknowledging a silent speaker, then added: "For however long gods can be cockblocked by a door."

"Probably depends on the god." She glanced at the armature, then at her watch: ten to seven. "So, why are we here?" She'd been looking forward to the surprise, whatever it was, but now she mostly wanted to get back to her office and figure out her friends, and their strange damage.

He stepped aside, spreading one arm out in a gesture of welcome. She shrugged, and wheeled the armature through.

"Do you trust me?" he asked.

She didn't look at him. She kicked backward, and the sole of her flat black shoe sent the door swinging shut.

"Good." He took off his labcoat, and she examined the room more closely. A dozen different pipes ran lengthwise along the back wall, feeding into and re-emerging from a dizzying array of machines festooned with neatly-labelled switches. The labels had been struck off an old label-maker; never been used. She fixated on one at random. It read:


She shook her head. Thaumaturgy was frequently indistinguishable from a parody of itself.

There was a desk tucked in the corner near the door. Dougall tossed his labcoat onto it and stretched, hard, before clapping his hands. "Alright. Our friend here is going to pop in about five minutes. Get ready."

She raised an eyebrow. "Where's the observation room?"

He shook his head.

She raised the other eyebrow, and widened both eyes. "We're staying in here?"

He nodded, and with a deft flick of his keycard-bearing wrist, locked the door. "Hope you've been working on your control. I don't want so much as a single grain of sand in my hair. It's moussed, you know."

She bit her lower lip.

"You were gonna say 'Yeah, I know'."

She snorted. "You've picked up Imrich's talent."

There was a clock above the door, and he was looking at it. "Speaking of Imrich: three minutes."

She relaxed as well as she could, pushing her tiny constellation of interpersonal problems out into the mental backyard. She focused on the environment, the here-and-now. There was… dust in the vents and dust on the floor and dust in two of the pipes, even, what's that for, maybe it's holy dust, and dust in the pores of the skeleton oh my god I can feel it in the pores what the FUCK and she fixated on that final sensation, the granules of potentiality humming in the dried-out marrow, rolling around on her spiritual tongue until she knew the taste again by heart. It had never really left her.

Three minutes passed in a heartbeat, and when the dust exploded out of the skeleton, it stopped abruptly just an inch from its origin.

Deering whistled. "Very nice." There was a shroud of red sand surrounding the armature, vaguely humanoid in shape. "Now, how quickly can you reconst—"

The cloud contracted with a snap, and she belatedly realized she was hearing the skeleton's bones shattering. Hope we didn't need those. She caught the splinters, knit them back together in a new configuration, felt her skin tingling as she made herself anew in her own old image. In mere moments, her desiccated doppelganger stood before them again.

"Magnificent." Deering actually clapped. "Would you prefer we enclothed the specimen?" He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, indicating the labcoat on the desk.

She considered for a moment. There was something obviously improper about "No, it's alright." She frowned; in her excitement, she'd failed to even finish the thought.

"Now," he spoke in low tones, "to what extent can you inhabit this form?"

She looked at him out of the corner of her eye, afraid to lose focus on the sand. "Inhabit…?"

"Can you get inside its head? Can you receive signals from the sand? Can you derive information on temperature, humidity, air density? Can you enter into it in any way? You did it the first time. I want to see how deep the connection goes."

She nodded hesitantly. That made sense. "That's why we're in here. In case something goes wrong, and you need to lock me in."

"Us," he said. He tapped the lock again with his keycard; there was a soft beep, then a louder one. "My idea, after all. Now, reach out and see what's what."

She closed her organic eyes, reached out, and opened her orbs of silicon.

His face was unreadable. "Excellent. How's your motor control?" His voice was metres of bedrock.

On what she would have sworn was a sudden whim, but wasn't, she cupped his chin in her third hand and pressed one red thumb to his cheek. It was difficult to distinguish the grain of his beard from the grains of her fingers.


"How's your fine motor control?" He could not have seemed calmer. "And sensitivity?"

She leaned in and kissed him, full on the lips. When it was done, she brushed her sand-self aside and did it again, for real and at length.


The sand-woman watched them for a while, in silence; from time to time Udo watched them from within it, admiring the view. Before long she lost her concentration, however, and the sand-woman crumbled away. Not long after that the red dust rose back into the air in a formless cloud, merging with pulverized bones of the Man of the Hour and the white dust streaming off the floors and pipes and walls and mingling in a grainy paste that fused to the ceiling at the moment of crisis.



9 September

Udo opened the door tentatively, wishing the shared spaces reserved for junior researchers had exterior windows — which of course at Site-43 could only mean windows on the doors, looking out on the hallways — the way the senior staff's did. Denying individual workspaces to the lower ranks made intuitive sense, but in this case the intuition was wrong. Though it seemed like space would be at a premium an underground facility, the reality was that the manufactories could whip up all the materials for a new office in less than an hour and the J&M techs could fab one up in less than two. The real reason, of course, was to remind everyone who was who.

Udo hadn't gone into the office in months, not since Dougall Deering became the only one of her… friends, who would reliably give her the time of day. The silence had become unbearable. Neither Rozálie nor Imrich was in the office now, though the cluttered state of their desks suggested they'd been spending a lot of time in here. That made intuitive sense too, and she suspected this intuition was correct: they stood little to no chance of being confronted with her presence in here, and they knew it.

There were four desks in the office. The fourth one featured a desktop computer with a flatscreen monitor, wireless keyboard and mouse. Unlike their personal machines and work tablets, this terminal was always active and required no user sign-on. She suspected it would be a trivial matter for Identity and Technocryptography to figure out who had used the thing at any given time — she had, after all, just stuck an ID card in the office's lock — but that was unlikely to happen unless the actions performed thereon were especially noteworthy. She intended hers to fly beneath the radar, but she also didn't want anyone knowing it was her performing them, lest they realize the implications for Deering's death.

The terminal had only one function. It was connected to SCiPNET, the inter-Site communications and database system. Junior Researchers could compose non-critical research queries and submit them to the general staff without risking undue scrutiny, looking like imbeciles or wasting precious time workshopping their phrasing. When she'd asked why this wasn't simply an application on every device, Laiken had explained: "We want you asking questions. We don't want you asking questions easily, all the time, off the cuff. We've got our own work to do as well."

Superficially, the message Udo tapped out appeared to fit the bill.


I am canvassing all potentially-relevant Departments for answers to the following query: what would cause sympathetic vibrations in brain matter with no Hume offset, telepathic lag of approximately 0.1j, and negligible ideation drift?

Thank you for your time.

She selected the ten most likely Departments from a dropdown menu, typed in a random code — so that she, and only she, could unlock any replies — and hit SEND.

There was a click from the door, and she heard it swing open. She froze in place, one hand on the mouse and one on the keyboard, staring at the now-empty client. Oh, good. Oh, good. Which fight is this gonna be?

She nearly jumped out of her skin when a hand landed softly on her shoulder. Another hand followed it. Incredibly, the hands began a massaging motion. Udo became conscious of the fact that her muscles were like braided iron wire.

The hands were tiny.

"Hi," she said, quietly. She didn't turn around.

"Hi. You're taking it badly."

Udo grimaced, but said nothing.

"You should get some sleep."

"I should get some ANSWERS," she suddenly shouted, and stood up. The hands fell off her back, and when she turned around Rozálie Astrauskas was looking up at her with a mixture of caution and concern. "Nothing else matters anymore."


Udo flung the door open again, relishing the excessive violence as it WHAMmed against the wall. "Nothing."

She stalked out into the hall, and she didn't look back.


Udo fidgeted with her labcoat hood, wishing she could pull it over her head and disappear, as she waited for Laiken to arrive. Why here? Why here? She stared at the keycard reader, knowing she could open the door, wondering if somehow the other woman knew as well. Deering's system was encrypted, but now he was dead; had they taken it apart, preparing the apartments for their new occupant, and discovered the ugly truth? Had she left some telltale sign behind, some undeniable last testament to their months of… working together?

She glanced down the hall again, trying to stay calm. Laiken was never late, so she ought to be turning the corner right about… now.


She exhaled, sharp and frustrated, at the same moment the keycard reader beeped and the door slid open. Stacey Laiken was standing in the doorway, within the apartment.

"Hey," she said.

She was holding a duffel bag.

Udo pointed at it. "They're dumping his stuff out already? He's only just gone cold."

Laiken's eyes widened, and Udo felt an incredibly keen pang of guilt. "No," the other woman whispered, very slowly. "No, this is my stuff."

Udo's brow furrowed. "Your stuff?"

"Yeah." Laiken shouldered the bag, which had slipped. It started slipping again immediately. "I had a drawer in his dresser."

In an instant, Udo was nothing but a disembodied pair of eyes. She couldn't feel her arms, her legs, her hands, her beating heart. Her voice sounded strange, strangled, as she echoed Dougall's final word on Earth: "What?"

Laiken showed her the engagement ring, still on her finger. "Couldn't wear his. Chief of ApplOcc is a target, you know? Loved ones, too." Laiken almost choked on the word, 'loved'. "Didn't wear his, for my safety." She shook her head. "My safety."

Udo nodded.

She nodded again.

She found that she couldn't stop nodding. "How long? Were you?" She hoped that made sense. She couldn't do better.

Laiken was near tears again. "Two years. Never the right time, you know? Never the right time."

She sounded bitter. Very, very bitter. Nearly half as bitter as Udo felt when she asked her next question: "What did you want to see me about?" She couldn't believe it had all come out intact. She felt like a sham exposed to the world, naked on stage.

"I…" The other woman reached up to brush at her eyes with a labcoat sleeve. "I thought you could help me. With… for the…" She sighed. "The eulogy. I need help with the eulogy."

Udo didn't answer.

Laiken was shaking again. They were both shaking now. "We're the only ones who really knew him, Rabbit."

Udo's body spun in place, and started away.

"I don't know anybody," she muttered, and she didn't care if the sound carried.


The office was empty, and this time it was going to stay that way. She pushed Imrich's desk up against the door, and turned out the lights. She couldn't have made it back to her dorm room, not in time, not like this.

She waited for nearly an hour for the tears to come, and the shaking to stop.

The shaking did stop, at least.

When the tears didn't come, she flicked on the desktop terminal and loaded up the query client. As expected, she had answers to every entreaty. Department of Tactical Theology: "The anomaly you describe has no apparent religious or ritual significance." Antimemetics Department: "This subject falls well outside our purview." (She couldn't remember why she'd bothered emailing them, whoever they were.) Medical Department: "The symptoms you describe suggest no known pathology, anomalous or otherwise." Temporal Anomalies Department: "These factors carry no obvious temporal indices." Every end was dead.

She had her finger on the power button when she suddenly noticed something strange.

She'd sent her message to the Department of Temporal Anomalies.

What the fuck is the Temporal Anomalies Department?


Yancy had long since gone to bed, but Ibanez was still running the tape back and forward. There had to be something she'd missed, both then and now. A man had died, on her watch, when so far as she could tell absolutely nothing was going wrong. That didn't make sense. That didn't make sense.

There was a knock on the monitoring room door, and that didn't make much sense either. Ibanez tore herself from the screen, and went to open up.

Udo Okorie was standing in the hall, looking not forlorn as she had when last they'd met, but… confused? Agitated? "We need to talk," she said. Very coolly. Very calmly.

Angry. Furious, even.

"What about?" Ibanez asked, stepping aside so the other woman could enter.

Okorie waited until the door was closed again before responding: "I think Dougall Deering was murdered."

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