“Is the disappearing act a Walker thing?” she asked, squinting at where he’d vanished so suddenly.
[I Believe So. I Have Not Met Any Walkers Before Now, And The Concordance Has Few Notes On Them, But Their Ability To Disappear And Appear Is One Of The Running Themes.]
“Oh, okay. Well, I guess we should head back? So, A Librarian, grab your – ugh – dinghy and we’ll set off again.”
There was no response. Everyone turned to A Librarian, who was staring into the middle distance, back towards the peninsula.
“Um,” said Nik, “A Librarian?” Gingerly, he tapped him on the shoulder.
He turned, blinking dazedly. “Hmm? Oh, sorry, I was miles away.”
“What were you looking at?”
His face scrunched in confusion. “Er, I’m not sure now. Probably just daydreaming.”
“Right.” Alice was sure something was up. “Anyway, get your dinghy on. We’re heading back to Melville and the station, and then… erm…”
Nik’s brother raised a hand. “We should go on a quest!”
“Boo. Who voted you Supreme Ruler? Because I sure didn’t.”
An exasperating ding announced the arrival of the non-ding-related-watercraft, and while the fortune teller hummed something from the Pirates of Penzance, they set off, back over towards the Melville peninsula.
It was at this point that something seemed to not be quite right. Alice glanced around, seeing nothing but the quiet ink stretching out flatly around them, the shapes of the splintered wooden islands behind them, and the far shore – which teemed with a ruined green city.
She leaned conspiratorially towards Nik. “Was that city always there?” she whispered.
“Erm. I’m not sure.” He replied under his breath. “Also, why are we whispering? It’s probably out of earshot.”
“It’s a city! It shouldn’t have an earshot!”
His brother joined the hushed conversation with his loudest stage-whisper. “HEY GUYS! WHAT’RE WE TALKING ABOUT?”
[Please Stop Moving Too Suddenly, It Makes It Difficult To Row.]
“So, everyone,” Alice said, full-volume, “am I seeing things? Is that city on the far shore there or not?”
Everyone started to speak at once, then lapsed into awkward silence.
“One at a time.”
Looks were exchanged, before A Librarian bit the bullet and spoke. “Now that you mention it, I’m not sure those used to be there. I think Coiled Ruins aren’t supposed to be that dense.”
“They smell blood in the water.” The fortune teller considered for a moment. “Well, they’re buildings, so maybe, er, mortar in the plumbing?”
“Mortar in the plumbing?”
“They can’t all be winners. I personally blame whoever writes this crap.”
“Shifting the blame, eh?” Alice scoffed.
Alice and the fortune teller then showcased their maturity and non-childishness by accusing each other of having ‘started it’.
Alice managed to endure a full thirty seconds of Twelfth’s eyeless glare before conceding. “Okay, fine. Er, maybe we should go around the city-thing? I feel stupid for asking, but can it move?”
Nik shrugged. “I’m not sure? I mean, I wouldn’t expect it or particularly rule it out.”
[Around It Is. Hold On.]
– – –
Across the Atrament, upon the shore, buildings that never existed clustered in a city erased by time. Shadowy, bandage-wrapped clouds of humanoid smoke with points of light for eyes shuffled quietly through the half-real streets, the only remnants of the Coiled Imperators. The jagged green streets of the ruined city echoed with their screams, mutterings and moans.
Something powerful moved across the ink, at the edges of the city’s senses. An old thing, a dark thing, whose mere presence had roused the fractured timeline ghosts of the Coiled Empire to movement. At the edge of the still blackness of the Atrament, the buildings were changing, flickering between different possibilities, different timelines, trying to stretch across the ink towards its quarry. A number of angular bridges in that same green stone, shattered in a nonexistent war, appeared and were discarded, reaching fitfully across the ink.
As the prey changed course, so too did the ruin, hypothetical buildings sprouting around one side and flickering out of existence on the other side. Overall, the effect was that the city-that-wasn’t slid along the shore, moving like a slime mould that had learnt the arts of hunting.
The entire time, the shadowy ghosts – the echoes of the destroyed civilians of the Coiled Empire – wandered aimlessly through the shifting streets, murmuring in anguish. They weren’t in control of the ruins. Not anymore.
– – –
“It’s following us.”
“It’s a city,” said Alice, “how the hell is it doing that?”
Nik’s brother looked back through his binoculars. “Midichlorians?”
“A serious answer, please.”
He took a deep breath in before launching into an explanation of something to do with many-world theory, the “Sapient-Worph Effect”, something about a million butterflies tapdancing on the head of a saucepan and – it was about that point that Alice stopped listening. Letting him prattle on, she turned to Nik and A Librarian.
“Does this make no sense to you either?”
Nik’s expression was apologetic. “It does make sense, but he’s approaching it very much from a high-theory end.”
“Yeah. The most basic explanation I can think of, er, would be that there are lots and lots of different cities that could have been there, and the ruins simply select between manifestations in different places. Overall, this makes the thing appear to move.”
“They don’t, however, tend to be nearly this dense. I’m honestly not sure what’s causing that, and it does seem to be following us in a frankly worrying manner,” A Librarian added.
The fortune teller, meanwhile, had lost the thread of his original explanation and started to chant the lyrics from Christmas carols instead.
She decide to put a stop to it. “Hey.”
“-three kings of Orient are, one on a bicycle, one in a car, one on a scooter, beeping his hooter, smoking a rubber cigar-”
He gasped. “Wow, rude!”
She ignored him. “Now, what are we planning? Are we going to end up leading this dangerous city-thing back to Melville? Because I don’t really want to do that.”
[Melville, Being So Close To The Ruins In The First Place, Has Defences Against The Intrusion Of Parasitic Histories.]
“But A Librarian just said that this level of ruins was unprecedented!”
A Librarian frowned. “I think the activity is something to do with this group. Therefore, if the city’s advance is slowed by the temporal fences, we should be able to outrun it easily.”
“It’s not very fast to start with,” Nik’s brother added.
“Yeah, that too. And once we’re far enough away, hopefully our lack of proximity will cause the aberrant ruin behaviour to cease.”
Alice’s brow creased in thought. “I think that’s a few too many uses of ‘hopefully’.”
“Do we really have a better choice?”
The fortune teller raised his hand. “Ooh, pick me!”
She shot him a withering look. “What?”
“I have a contingency plan, but I’m not going to tell you for dramatic effect.”
She rolled her eyes. “Thanks for that wonderful contribution. Now, A Librarian, show me on the map where the ‘temporal fence’ is.”
“Right, well,” he said, fumbling it out of his satchel, “if you see here, this green dashed line is the border of a History Intrusion Zone, and-”
He continued to explain as Twelfth quietly rowed them, parallel to a shore where dark green buildings were massing like a mouldy concrete stormcloud.