Art by Annie Zhu, Story by James Wylder
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Chapter 17: Necessary Dinosaurs
“Good Morning.” Arch said, and Graelyn wondered exactly how long she had slept. She pushed her glasses up and rubbed her eyes. She ha that weird feeling you get when you sleep the night in your clothes, the feeling that you need to change them, like they've absorbed just too much of your sweat and they've settled somewhat wrong around your body.
“Did I sleep the night on this hill?” She said, and Arch nodded.
“Apparently a lot of people do that here. There were tons of those Dawn folks just sleeping out here under the stars last night. The ground here is really comfortable, whatever that means.” She looked up at the sky, and watched someone in swim trunks jump from a floating island into one of the liquid clouds. Their friends were already swimming in it.
“How do they get down from the cloud-things without hurting themselves? How do the islands and clouds float like that?” She mused.
“Always skeptical as well. But clearly it works, I just don't know how.”
“Don't think too hard about it.” John Vice said suddenly from behind her.
“Bwah!?” Graelyn said as she bolted up in surprise and stumbled a few steps down the hill.
“Er, sorry.” Johnathan said, holding out a plate of breakfast food and two milk packages. “I uh, thought you'd like breakfast.”
“Breakfasts are not meant to make me fall down hills!”
“Touche. Well, anyways here's some food. The plate was stacked up with enough food for the two of them, though Arch found it awkward to stuff it in his mouth under his mask. He seemed not entirely at ease with the concept of chewing either.
“Why don't you just take your mask off?” Johnathan asked.
“Its considered rude to show your face where I come from. Faces are private things. You don't share them with anyone but your closest loved ones.” He nodded, and reached for one of Graelyn's grapes, and she pushed his hand away.
“Okay, my turn.” Graelyn said, “How do the cloud-swimming pools and islands float?”
“The simplest way to explain it is the laws of reality are different here. There are different rules about how objects interact with each other. Gravity has different rules, for instance. What exactly those rules are is beyond me, but they're a thing.”
“Okay, so if the laws of reality are so different here, are there some vastly different native species to it? Really alien things?” Vice looked a bit uncomfortable.
“Er, did Kinan really not tell you how Spiral came about? Jesus that woman is either totally terse or giving you the longest speech...” Graelyn and Arch shook their heads.
“Was she supposed to tell us something?” She asked.
“Er, yes. Spiral isn't a natural plane of reality. Kinan made it.” Graelyn dropped her milk carton, and it spilled over her lap. She cursed and stood up, trying to wipe it up.
“Ugh, damn it. Okay, I must have misheard you. I thought you said she made this place. Do you mean she ordered the construction of the buildings or...?”
“No, I mean she made it. You'd have to ask her how she did it, but I know she doesn’t think she could do it again. Kinan has had a hard life, harder than she'll tell you. If I was her I'd have just retired here and let the rest of the Universe go about its business, but she isn't that kind of person.”
Arch finished chewing a muffin, and joined in, “When you say she had a hard life, does that have something to do with the way she talks?” Johnathan nodded.
“She got some sort of brain damage when she was much younger. Don't ask her about that though. She doesn't like remembering it. She lost a lot of the muscle control in her face, and it slowed her speech and slurred it... I never knew her before it happened, that's just how Kinan has always been, but she used to be a beautiful singer, or so I'm told.” In the distance, a group of hoodied figures moved towards a crystals circle in the ground.
“Does she know you're telling us all this?” Arch asked, concerned.
“Of course. I'm not into outing people's personal lives. Its my job to tell new recruits this stuff so they don't bother her with it. You'd be surprised how many people want to ask her dumb stuff like if she's fit to be the leader here because of that. Its good to clear it up.”
“We wouldn't ask her something like that.” Arch said. Graelyn snapped in Arch's direction and nodded.
“Glad to hear it. Still, now you know what you know.” The figures in the distance got close to the circle, and a blue swirl erupted from it.
“What's going on down there?” Graelyn asked. Vice grabbed one of her grapes while she was distracted, and popped it in his mouth.
“Looks like we have visitors.”
“Returning people from missions or something?” He shook his head.
“No, doesn't look like that.” Figures began to step out of the portal, and Graelyn saw that Kinan, Miranda, and Jenny the woman in the poodle skirt with the katana were all in the greeting party. The first people to step out were all dressed in what looked like coats from the American Revolution, but Green. They were even wearing the appropriate foot and leg wear, but also had some strange gauntlets covered in crystals on one arm, and eye wear that seemed to contain some needless gears and gizmos. The gauntlets were aesthetically similar, and it all gave the impression they had raided a clock shop on their way over.
Following them were a group of people in black robes, similar to the robes that man who'd shown up in Atlantis base with Ares wore. Arch and Graelyn both got much more interested when they came through, but were also sort of confused. Without asking for any explanation, it was fairly obvious they were some sort of cultural branch off. Though what that meant was anyone's guess, really. They also were wearing the gauntlets, but theirs were aesthetically different, less cobbled together, more sleek, the crystals carefully cut to fit carefully shaped settings. The three groups walked to meet each other, and began a triangular conversion.
“Who are they?” She asked John.
“They're some of our rivals. Members of some of the less powerful groups trying to influence the universes.”
“Are they here to ask you for help? Since you're more powerful?” He laughed, and pulled his knees up to his chest.
“Powerful? We're definitely not that.”
“You took down the government of Earth.”
“We gave some people with an army the tools to take down the government of one Earth. We enabled some people who already would have been doing what we helped them to do, just shortened the time scale.” Graelyn looked over at Arch and frowned. She wished she could read his face for reassurance.
“You talk so casually about this, like the power to do what you did on Songbird's world isn't... Massive. You changed the fate of a whole universe.”
“Well yeah, but its just one universe.”
Scale. Its a fairly important thing. The scale of how you perceive the world affects everything about you understand it, after all. Lets say you grew up in a small town, the kind of super tiny place where nearly everyone is the same ethnicity and no buildings are higher than two stories, then you go to a city, a big multicultural metropolis full of skyscrapers and more people in your sight passing randomly down the street than you'd seen before in your life. This would naturally change your view of the scale of the universe.
In same way, if someone who had just helped violently overthrow the government of an entire planet, interfered in its history, and then extracted you from that planet by threatening its government told you that the group he worked for “wasn't powerful” and then told you it was “just one universe”, this might change your sense of scale.
If you were Graelyn, you might sit there wide eyed, your jaw loose, staring. If you were Arch, you might shake your head, and say something like: “You can't be so cavalier about lives. Just because there are a lot of universes doesn't mean each person there isn't still a person.” If you were Graelyn, you might then awkwardly point at Arch as if to say “yeah, what he said!” and if you were Johnathan Vice, you might frown, and reply, “I'm not being Cavalier about it...”
“Oh, but you are. Do you think people are replaceable?”
Johnathan scratched his head, “Er, well, they are.”
“No, they aren't.”
“No, let me explain...” He took a breath, “They are literally replaceable. As in, we've replaced people before.”
“...Go on.” Vice stood up, and looked down at the triangle of talkers. A man in robes seemed to be yelling at Kinan, a woman in robes behind him looked awkward. Both Kinan and a man in a colonial Green coat stood placidly. Jenny was being physically held back by Miranda.
“We were trying to influence a world very similar to the one you were on. It was a bit different though, the Revolution wasn't communist it was... Socialist? Honestly I can't really remember. It all blurs together. But those people you met, Alice and her gang? They died in a vtol crash. The parts failed and the pilot wasn't paying attention. We checked forward in history, and saw with them dead the whole movement fell apart. We tried changing its history, but well, there actually is only so much you can do unless you're some sort of lord of time. We couldn't prevent their deaths. But Kinan realized that no one actually saw them die, the vtol crashed in an empty field somewhere. So... What if we cleaned up the bodies, made sure no one found them, and just... Popped in a different Alice MacLeod?”
“You can't be serious.”
“I'm serious. This is a war, and Kinan is an interdimenstional warlord. She has an army, and I'm in it. So Jenny, Miranda, Joseph, he's the Pottawatomie guy, and I all slipped into a reality where the revolution was losing, losing badly, but where all of them were still alive. We talked to the versions of them there, and convinced them to abandon their reality for a new one. There was no hope there, they couldn't do any good there but die an inglorious death. We dropped the charred bodies off of their doubles into their reality, and shipped them over to the new one. They took over where the others had left off, and liberated Earth for their cause.”
“Didn't they miss their home? The people they'd abandoned?” Arch asked. Vice shrugged.
“I never asked.”
“You should have asked.”
There was something off about this whole thing, something that didn't make sense to Graelyn, she tried to put the pieces together. The man in robes pointed at Kinan angrily, she said something back to him, and then to green coat, who nodded. They began to move back from each other.
“We saved billions of people by what we did. I don't have any regrets.”
“They were still different people, people thought they were the same, sure, but they weren't.”
“They thought they were, isn't that all that matters.” Arch's coating reddened.
“Hold up,” Graelyn cut in, “If you guys don't care about whether or not the Revolution wins, what exactly is your criteria for changing history?”
“Kinan showed you a fallen world, didn't she?” Graelyn nodded. “Anytime a world develops the ability to link to other realities, two things happen: they begin to synch up with the prime reality they are attached to, and they open themselves up for invasion by the Council. If we break the chain of history, diverge the narrative of that universe enough, it stops... Synching up. It becomes harder to mount a large scale invasion. We chose who wins based on who is least likely to want to build inter reality travel.”
Graelyn stood up to face him, she clenched a fist, she'd expected so much more, “That's it? That's it?!? You don't have any higher purpose, no ideal you're fighting for? Its just... A cold practical decision?”
“Our principle is saving the 10,000 Dawns. Our principle is saving the most lives possible.”
“Guys, I think you might want to watch this.” Arch said softly. They turned back to the grass field below where Kinan had her sword drawn, and was spinning it. Jenny and the woman in the robe, where standing to the side. The man in robes had his gauntleted arm extended, and energy was swirling around it.
“What are they doing?”
“They're going to duel.” Kinan moved into several positions, flexing and stretching, going through the motions. She made every movement look so fluid and natural, you'd think that it was second nature to every human till you tried to do it yourself. Then she stopped, and turned to Jenny. Her mouth moved, and then Jenny shook her head. The man in the black robes and the woman in black did the same.
“What are they doing?”
“Jenny is Kinan's second, just like in old duels you read about in school. She and Lawrencia were trying to negotiate a truce, clearly it didn't work. Now they're going to fight.”
“Is she going to kill him?” Graelyn asked.
“You don't wonder if he'll kill her?” Graelyn shuddered.
“I don't really want to wonder either.”
Kinan gave a final flourish of her sword, and stepped forward, as the man in the hood did. They began to circle each other. The man in green counted down, they could tell because he held up fingers. When they reached 0, they sprung. Kinan launched herself in the air as hoods held up his arm to unleash a streak of green lightning through the sky. Kinan twisted through the air and spun around it, pushing her foot out to land a kick on the man's shoulder, then as they both fell she drew her sword across his chest to sever him in two, but he put his gauntlet between the sword and his chest, causing a clang that could be heard from all the way up the hill. Kinan moved inhumanly quick, using the push back from the blocked blow she spun in the air to land on her feet and began charging at hoods, who began to shoot lighting at her, but she leapt to the left and right perfectly out of range of the electricity, never losing a step as she landed. The man began to back up as she encroached on him, and Kinan moved her sword into a thrusting position. Hoods dodged, barely, throwing his left arm up in the air and sidestepping the blow. Kinan didn't hesitate, she turned her wrists and brought the sword up into the man's armpit. The man looked shocked, as the blood started trickling down her sword. She didn't stop. She pulled the sword back, and put her foot forward, and around the back of his knee, while she brought the sword around, and down on the other arm in a carefully controlled blow that cut the straps holding the heavy gauntlet in place, and pushed it down off his arm, leaving a bloody scrape where the blade took of some of his skin on the way off. She pulled her foot back at the same time, while shoving the man. He dropped to the ground, bloody and dazed. A person in black robes began administering medical aid while Jenny yelled something and the woman in black robes made a clear and broad gesture: they yield.
“Is this how you solve all your disputes? Bloodshed?”
“He'll be fine. Greggor is a moron, this isn't the first time Kinan's had to kick his ass.” Kinan looked up like she'd heard them, and nodded, wiping the blood off her sword onto a cloth Jenny had handed her.
“You didn't answer my question.” He sighed.
“No, this isn't how we settle all our problems, but like I said, this is a war. Its better we solve some of these things in duels than waste time killing lots of each other.”
“I suppose if she dies, you'd just get another Kinan then.” Vice smiled, and Graelyn felt a bit patronized.
“There's only one Kinan. But now that she's finished down there, she'd like me to take you guys to her. She has something to show you.”
Kinan was waiting for them on the top of a hill, watching a bubble of water filled with swimmers pass by. A few people on a floating island waved down to the swimmers from it, and a few leapt down to join in the fun, splashing into the floating bubble of water. Graelyn, Arch and John climbed the hill, and stood behind her, expecting her to say something, after a moment, Graelyn coughed loudly. Kinan didn't look behind her, just patted the grass next to her. Taking the hint, they took a seat.
“So, your mission.” She began abruptly. “We've found a universe we're fairly certain has a back door cut into the labyrinth where you can access a special bifrost into the prime reality. It will be on the edge of the 10,000 Dawns, so expect things to be different there. Very different. I can't follow you, none of us can, for fear someone will notice. Part of the reason you'll be able to get in is no one is looking for you, but as I said before even if no one would notice me I couldn't enter that path. Its blocked from me.” Graelyn pushed her feet into the dirt gently so she left the impressions of her heels in it.
“Kinan, if this is a war, then are people going to try to kill us? Duel us?” Kinan stared off at the sky.
“Not duel you, no. In all likelihood attempts to stop you will be more subtle than that. But I can't predict what they'll be.”
“I don't think you've been entirely honest with us.” Arch said, “About what you're doing.” Kinan sighed, and looked at Arch.
“You're right. Because the truth is a bit odd.”
“We can take it.” She held his gaze.
“The truth is, Arch, that all reality is is a story. This war, the dawns, its all fiction.”
Arch took in what she said, and laughed, his skin lighting up in yellow smiley faces laughing along with him.
“We're flesh and blood, or flesh and oil and blood, we're not a story.” Kinan pulled out a a fist full of grass and threw it into the breeze.
“What happens when you die, Arch?”
“You go to the underworld.” Kinan's eye twitched, whatever that meant.
“What do you think Graelyn?” She shrugged. Kinan continued: “When you die, people talk about you. You stop being who you were, you become just what people think about you. Your good intentions, your dreams, the things you did alone, they vanish. You become a two dimensional caricature of who you were. You become a story. We have the unfortunate case of becoming stories while we're still alive.” Kinan snapped her fingers, and a gentle rumble began from the distance, as a shape began moving towards them. “When the prime reality changes... It changes us. It rewrites us. My job is to make different worlds so different from the prime reality that... You can't reconcile them. The differences are too pronounced, the changes can't occur. If the changes are small enough, they can get smoothed over, and the story can form part of the prime reality's structure. I'm fighting a war for control of our own narrative, our own story. The prime reality is the biblical canon, we need to be its apocrypha.”
“We need to be Tubol-Cain...” Arch said.
“Its something Graelyn said.”
“Yeah, its a story that's not in the Bible: this guy named Tubol-Cain hung out on Noah's ark, hidden on it. He survived the great flood by being extraneous.”
“Then yes, we need to be Tubol-Cain.” The shape on the horizon grew closer. It had legs. “When you break into the Prime reality, it will change everything for us.”
“If we do.” Graelyn pessimised.
“Yes, if. But if you make it, we'll be influencing their story. If you can make a change in their narrative, they won't be able to overwrite us, because they'll need us to exist. Do you understand?”
“Honestly?” Graelyn asked.
“Honestly.” Kinan replied.
“That sounds like pseudo scientific mambo-jumbo.” Kinan shrugged.
“Hence why I didn't phrase it that way before. But I see our guest has arrived.” Kinan gestured toward what had once been the distant shape. It became clear now that it was a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
“What.” Graelyn said.
“Hello!” Said Arch.
“What I need to learn now is what is different about your universe, every universe has some special power in it, whether you know it or not. It can be bold like fireballs, or subtle like the clegging in Songbird's world.” Graelyn raised her hand. Kinan blinked, and then called on her.
“Yes, that is great, but why do you need a T-Rex.”
“Well how else am I supposed to terrify you into manifesting whatever your skill is? It will be easier for you than Arch, because he's so modified. Here take this wristband.” She dropped a band in Graelyn's lap.
“Seriously. This is part of your training. I'm going to chase you, and you're going to try to escape.” Graelyn took her glasses off, and rubbed them clean, then put them back on.
“You can't be serious.”
“You'll be totally safe.” Graelyn remembered how insanely quick she'd been in the duel. She could probably kill a T-Rex in a fair fight with that sword... Then it occurred to her.
“Kinan, you said that you'd be chasing me, not the dinosaur...” But Kinan was already crossing her legs, and closing her eyes, she seemed to be meditating. The dinosaur began to sway gently. Graelyn quickly threw off her suit jacket, leaving the hoodie on, and slipped on the wrist band. Okay, training, this was just like gym class. Which she hadn't been particularly good at. But she could do this. Right?
Kinan opened her eyes and mouth, and they all glowed golden. The T-Rex's eyes flashed the same color, and Arch looked at her “Okay we can do this together.”
“No, if this is something she needs to know... Then I'll do this.” the T-Rex stomped towards her, and Graelyn ran. The big stompy footprints followed her, and she could smell its breath, rancid like rotten meat. She ran hard, and felt its jaws close behind her, nicking her hood.
Was the dinosaur actually going to try to eat her?
Kinan said she was going to chase her... So she was what, possessing the dinosaur? That was ridiculous, but it had to be the case. Huffing, running her arms back and forth, she tried to think of what she could do to outrun the dinosaur, her wristband hummed and beeped. There was nothing she could think of, no special power. So she just kept running, the dinosaur nipping at her heels. She ran and ran, till she couldn't run anymore. She collapsed, panting, and felt the warm jaws of the dino reach around her. It didn't bite down though, instead she found herself scooped up like a ball by a golden retriever. The T-Rex turned around, and headed back towards the hill, stomping all the way.
The big lizard dropped her down gently, if a little smelly and moist, next to Kinan, and then stepped back politely. Kinan's eyes stopped glowing, and she took in a deep breath, looking down at her human hands as if checking she was in her own body. Arch put his hand on her shoulder and she nodded to note she was okay.
“Okay, that was pretty crazy. Were you the dinosaur?” Kinan nodded.
“I learned how to do that a long time ago. Its a difficult technique. But it didn't seem like any showed up in you.” She reached out and looked at the band on Graelyn's wrist, her eyes looked confused. “Something should have though, surely. The band can usually detect them when you get enough adrenaline...” Kinan removed the band, and scrolled through its options.
“Was trying to eat me really necessary!?!?”
“I wasn't going to eat you, don't be melodramatic.” Kinan looked back at Arch and Graelyn. “Its not reading anything.”
“Okay, question about your pseudo-science here: what exactly is that detecting differences from?”
“The prime universe. Its about as boring a generic place as you can get, till it started stealing things from more interesting universes. But your universe... There's nothing this can detect. You don't have any powers it can detect different from Prime... So why would you be linked to it at all?”
“I don't know, I'm not the sorcerer.”
“I'm not a sorcerer.”
“Right, you're a warlord.”
“Yes.” Kinan said seriously. “But that doesn't stop this being odd. If you'd had a special technique, we could have trained you in it, pushed the boundaries of it. But you don't.”
“So we're not special.”
“I never said that.”
“But we're not.” Kinan rolled her eyes.
“It just changes the mission perimeters. You'll have to be careful. The prime universe is a dangerous place. You'll be trying to get to the year 2227, on the moon of Neptune, Triton.”
“There's nothing on Triton, other than made up monsters to scare children.” Graelyn said.
“I'm afraid there is. That's where a probe from another universe will come through, checking it out. You need to capture it, and get it to someone who can analyze it in their universe. That will change their narrative, change it to one where the opening up of their world into other dimensions isn't something that passively happens to them.”
Arch rose up, dusting himself off.
“That's a pretty big change.”
“It will change everything.” Kinan said. “If you do this, you'll create a whole new story.”
“And you'll send us home.”
“And I'll send you home.”
“Then what are we waiting for, I just want to get this over with.” Graelyn said. Kinan stood up, and offered a hand to Graelyn, who ignored it and got up on her own.
“Go eat, go sleep, I'll drop you off there in the morning.” Kinan began to walk off, “Try to enjoy your life for ten seconds.” Graelyn stared silently after her, Kinan's boots leaving a trail of footprints in the soft soil as she left, the grass giving gently underfoot.
“We could go swimming.” Arch said, pointing at the bubbles.
“I suppose we could have fun.” Said Graelyn dejectedly, “But just this once.”
Kinan came to get them the next morning, followed by Johnathan and Miranda Vice. They'd spent the previous evening swimming in the floating bubbles, diving off of the floating islands into them. Graelyn swam through the bubble watching the dinosaurs walk below through through the bottom of the bubble. She tried to figure out the physics of this world, but gave up when she realized Arch could somehow swimming the bubble to without sinking, a fact that seemed to confuse him as well. She laughed, and took in a lung full of water on accident, which her body somehow processed into air. That was the real moment she gave up trying to figure out the laws of this world, and just enjoyed the feeling of being in the water. It was quiet in the bubble, her hair floating free in the water. She could have stayed there forever, but of course they eventually got hungry. Climbing out of the bubble onto a ladder that dipped down into it from a passing island, they looked for something to eat and settled on some sort of vat grown shrimp meat for dinner, cooked by a woman in a sari who put the meat on kebabs with pinnacle and green peppers, grilling them to add a smoky flavor. Each bite was juicy, but still firm to the teeth, and perfectly complimented the other flavors on the kebab. Graelyn drank some kind of fruit flavored tea, while Arch just had water. They'd slept under the stars a second time, the lights in the sky winking as if they knew that such nights were rare and to be enjoyed.
“I see you found the swim suit dispensary.” Kinan said as she set down the tray of breakfast food. Graelyn picked up a plate with a Belgian waffle on it, then a jug of syrup which she drenched it in, and dug in. Arch ate paste.
“It was cleverly disguised with a large sign that said 'Swimsuit dispensary.” Kinan nodded.
“We're very good hiders here.”
“So when do we leave?” Arch said.
“Whenever you're ready. We've packed bags for you with what you might need. Swimsuits are apparently a part of that.”
“What do you mean?” Graelyn said with her mouth full.
“I mean we'll be dropping you off on a beach.” Graelyn and Arch exchanged looks: not the worst place to be left off, not at all.
Kinan opened up a portal on the field, throwing a handful of the crystal dust into the breeze, and swirling her hand, as if she was (and she probably was) controlling the wind to spin the dust into a circle, and gestured toward it. Graelyn had her swimsuit on under her usual clothes, with the Dawn hoodie on beneath the jacket. A pack was slung over her shoulder. Arch had on a pair of swim trunks, which were of course entirely unnecessary for him, hidden under his usual long coat and his hat.
“Good luck.” Kinan said, “I'm counting on you.” Graelyn smiled faintly, and walked toward the portal. Arch waved goodbye to everyone, and followed her.
She looked into the swirling white of the portal, and took a deep breath.
She just had to do this, and she could go home. She could get her cat back, and just fade away.
No one would have to notice her again.
But as she stepped into the swirl, it occurred to her that that was probably just denial.
Tune in next week as Graelyn and Arch's mission begins... And not in the way they'd expect!