by these signs
they knew they were home
The Balcony Cliffs building was much as Chen remembered it—so much so that Moss and Grayson went on ahead to ensure that Chen did not already live there. But Chen’s old apartment was empty, rich with trash and giant silverfish. The silverfish danced and paraded and showed no fear, as if the three truly were ghosts.
Moss didn’t consider the apartment abandoned. She had always loved seeing silverfish. While they offended Grayson’s sense of a recoverable future. It was a visceral reaction—her brain always reminded her that every living thing was sacred now. That any life was a good sign.
“In the end, the silverfish shall inherit the Earth,” Moss said, content. “And they shall build towers in the desert and create a great civilization.” For that was one of the myths told in the City.
But the point was: No Chen that they could find, and the fox had told Moss that no Moss grew here, in the City. Perhaps Moss grew farther afield, but this was no help to them.
Grayson had yet to encounter another Grayson in their travels, felt an irrational sense of loneliness when the other two told tales of their doubles. Because what no Grayson meant was that she had perished across most timelines before she made it back to Earth. Because no Grayson could flourish out there for long. A gloved hand across unforgiving stone.
Chen and Moss both welcomed finding the Balcony Cliffs’ swimming pool again, deserted and full of brackish water without much alive in it. Moss would fix that, not because it affected the mission but because it was in her nature. Because she always hoped to leave things behind that were better than she had found them.
They would claim an empty apartment near the southern edge of the Balcony Cliffs, with an ease of exit toward the ravine that served as preamble to the Company lands. They would be silent and incognito and try to blend in with the others who lived in that space.
“I lived here in mine.”
“In mine, I never knew about this place. I lived in the ruined observatory. In the basement. Before I met Moss.”
“I visited a friend here, once.”
“You had a friend? Doubtful.”
A sculpture of a giant bird. The corpse of a dog. A ruined dollhouse.
By these signs they knew they were home.
Their tenth City.
After the Balcony Cliffs’ attack beetles had been repulsed, after the scavengers received the message, the three regrouped behind a door blocking off a corridor near the southern entrance. Easily defendable. The door’s graffiti featured laughing foxes playing in the desert, each with but a single eye. Chen drew in the second eye on each to balance the equation. Moss reinforced the microbial sensors. There should be no tickle, no trace so light that Moss should not know it in time.
Grayson distrusted the lack of resistance; they had repulsed multitudes in past versions. But though she trained her eye across beams, blueprints and ghost layers bursting across her line of sight … she could parse no threat beyond the usual.
“We should move up our timeline,” Grayson said.
“But not blind. Not from panic.”
“It’s not panic. It’s common sense.”
“What if the fish is stubborn? What if the fish resists?”
“I’ll go,” Chen said. “I will convince the fish.”
“No,” Moss said. “It must be me or some part of me.”
“Then I will stand watch.”
“We must just go in and do what we came here to do.”
“I’ll go,” Chen repeated, with the force of a slammed door.
But the door had already been shut. Grayson and Moss ignored him.
Soon they would need the blue fox to say yes to them. They would need to be sure the duck with the broken wing didn’t interfere.
Soon, too, their faery mode might not be enough. Sometimes they had to wear their contamination suits. Depending on Moss’s senses, Grayson’s eye, Chen’s prophecies. What did contamination mean in this City, and which way did it flow?
Each Company building was different. But recon had diminishing returns and too many risks. So they rehearsed their plan, with the aid of the old dollhouse found by Grayson (once again). The Company had seven floors, but it was still easier to visualize using dolls and furniture and rooms than diagrams scratched in the dirt. Some things never changed.
They must get some version of Moss inside the Company building, to compromise the portal wall, to infiltrate the wall of globes.
But they’d been wrong about one thing.
Chen was still there. Chen had been lying in wait. Chen had never ambushed them before. Chen had either been there or not been there. That was all.
An evil star.
Perhaps they should have aborted the mission right then, moved on, found another City, another Company.
like two people trying
to become one person
Chen ambushed Chen in a corridor distant from their apartment, near the swimming pool. Chen did not reach out to Moss or Grayson, who were already in the apartment; the danger seeped into their minds instead as an unease, took a long time to coalesce. Then burst forth as a star as radiant as Chen’s hand drifting bright across the horizon.
It happened too often. This withholding by Chen. This self-sacrifice. They could not tell if this was out of loyalty to his other self, from his pervading guilt, or the simple logic that it made no sense for all three of them to risk harm. Yet each time was more dangerous, for it had come to seem the Company sensed their presence, their mission, on some subconscious level. Thus cast out all Chens, or, in some cases, killed them, snuffed them out. Or made them more belligerent.
This Chen roared, brought down heavy fists on Chen’s back, cursing his own name, as Chen smashed into Chen’s midriff, already enraged by his termination.
They remained close as wrestlers, clasping each other’s shoulders with meaty hands. The sweat, ache of muscles, and desperation that choreographed their movements. Chen was confident and resigned; he knew from prior experience he likely must fight to the death, as much as he wished not to. Locked now in a fatal embrace, both sets of legs churning, wide stance, looking from above like some bizarre crab or starfish in two parts or like two people trying to merge and become one person.
“Submit,” Grayson’s Chen muttered in Chen’s ear.
“Never. Abomination. Traitor,” came the reply.
“Get out. Stop helping them. Stop the hurting.”
“Die die die.”
Felt the dissolve, fought it, came back into focus.
Chen, between grunts, tried to tear off Chen’s left ear with his teeth. So he let his ear fall off, spin across the empty ground, pick itself up, and lurch out of harm’s way.