The Stacks

By Their Deeds

by Lawrence Burton

Dorset Hardy had called her weird.

Ema maybe shouldn't have been quite so stung being as she kind of took pride in fitting out with the rest of them, kind of enjoyed the square peg status. If it was the choice of either having a brain or mixing up the soup just like every other reduced cost bit of underbait in the immediate radius, well - it wasn't much of a choice. Nevertheless, being fourteen years and bubbling over with hormones, the weird hurt - this being weird like the insult, not weird as in fash or miss-conduct.

Check your ebbing stats, Ema, she could still hear Dorset whining through a mouthful of gum and pep. I should figure you're on the button, 'cause you sure dress like one.

Figure you really are more than just a pair of tits, Ema had retorted, walking off screen before the other girl could make like she wasn't so impacted by that. It hadn't been a great response, and she had thought of better in the minutes since, but it had been quick and it did the job. Someone once told her that the rhythm of walking fired up the rhythm of thought, and remembering this, Ema was wishing she had taken the autobus. It was only fifteen minutes from City Academy to home, but that was a long fifteen minutes with your head all knotted up in what you should have said.

Dorset had stirred the soup with Lee Montin from the bike team and now she was making sure everyone had the memo. The rest were playing underbait so they had all nodded and grinned like it was no big thing. Maybe they were faking it, or maybe not. Ema was beginning to feel like she might be the only girl her age who hadn't mixed it up. That might be kind of embarrassing, but she was damn sure she wasn't going to pay out on credit to peer pressure.

And neither was she going to pay credit for having some kind of interest in anything that wasn't mixing it or fash or the boys of the ebbing bike team.

Besides, enough boys were into the files - d/r Conflict, Zanzibar, The Grind, Null A, even the oldies like Star Wars and Alien. Some of them were into all that over just about anything else, even mixing it. Just because Ema had the same tastes didn't mean she was on the button or whatever. So maybe Dorset had stirred the soup, but it was kind of mysterious that she was really going to talk about anything at all once the deed was done. The only boys that cared about fash wouldn't be too impacted with underbait trickering. Weird or not, at least Ema had conversation. Those boys that liked her - well, they liked her, as in herself, and not like she was just another one of the soup group.

Ebb up Dorset soup group Hardy, Ema thought to herself, carding the elevator door and stepping inside. No impact.

She stared at the display as the numbers flashed red, timing out the lurch of her stomach as the lift sailed up towards her floor. It would be hours before her mother clocked off. Just about time to change and watch an old file, maybe The Cosmic Trail or one of those.

That would take her mind off drama.

Vorscht stared at the object in his hand. His eyes ran up the length of the wooden pole forming the main part of its body, then down to the lower end where the sharp tips of four metallic prongs pierced the soil. It took him a moment to recall what this thing was for, what the object represented. It took him another moment to wrestle with the idea that this understanding might not represent the return of his wayward memories after all.

As was the case with so many of Vorscht's recent discoveries, it seemed as though this might be the first time he'd encountered this information. There were images, himself driving the fork into the ground with the pressure of a soil caked boot, then turning the sod of earth to expose its underside, a single earthworm swaying in unaccustomed daylight; then staccato moments of planting, harvesting, and so on - his own fat, calloused hands tugging at the leaves of something resembling a beet.

Yet amongst these amnesiac fragments he found nothing that spoke to any genuine sense of remembrance. The life of that person could just as easily have been lived by someone else, someone in a book or a film. He felt no personal connection, although this troubling line of thought was nothing new and Vorscht suffered it only briefly.

He had found the fork propped up against the wall inside his shed alongside other similar large tools - spade, pick, another couple of forks, both larger but more wizened with rust. A grubby plastic bucket that may once have contained paint or agricultural chemicals served as home to other smaller implements and ephemera - hand fork, trowel, assorted lengths of cane, a scattering of nails and screws. The dereliction spoke of familiarity - rust and dust, paint weathered from splinters of desiccated wood where daylight had begun to invade the shed interior, thick wads of cobweb and the tang of stale air. This was the grammar of neglect, but neglect as an absence of care or order, not the neglect of abandonment. The rusted hook splitting the window frame at head height, the knot in the wood of the door just by the handle, and the seemingly pointless strand of red twine fixed to the far wall with a bent panel pin - these seemed like they might be old friends, but that crucial twinge of recognition was missing.

Vorscht hoisted up the fork by its handle and stepped back out into the morning sunlight. He made a couple of experimental jabs at the ground, feeling the weight of the tool, watching the tines pierce the earth as he considered the practicalities of digging holes and planting potatoes. If he was a farmer, then all this stuff would surely come back to him in time. Probably it would be best to avoid thinking about it too much. Just let it happen.

As a strategy it had worked thus far. Yesterday's evening meal had been cooked more or less on automatic pilot, so to speak. The various cans of vegetables and pastes had been confusing, in fact so confusing as to bring on yet another identity crisis. A tornado of troubled thoughts whipped him so far away from the here and now that he barely even noticed what his hands were doing, and by the time he had noticed, he was already sat at the table tearing into steak, boiled potatoes, green beans and gravy. Although a little disconcerting, there was some comfort to be had in the thought of his body remembering some of those chores that his mind had forgotten. Now as he played with the fork and deliberated over the prospect of putting it to use, it felt like his muscles might be on familiar territory.

There was a noise over by the trees, a loud electric buzz, something like mains hum improbably transposed to the heavens. Vorscht let the fork fall to the ground and cocked his head, squinting over towards the line of elms ranged along the far end of the yard. The source of the noise was invisible. He could see nothing out of the ordinary, but then as a man with a name and nothing else beyond vague ideas, he realised he maybe wasn't the best judge of what you would call ordinary.

Then he saw it moving past a break in the trees, a translucent object resembling an upturned bowl floating maybe thirty or forty feet above the ground. The domed upper surface of the object was surmounted by a second, much smaller bowl shape with three dark circles set in the side - perhaps windows or portholes of some kind. The sighting lasted less than a second although it felt much longer as the craft - if indeed it was a craft - crossed the clearing in absolute silence. The foreshortened moment yawned into something bigger, time enough for Vorscht to become aware of the silence and wonder what relation it bore to the buzzing sound of only a moment earlier. It seemed like the noise might have been designed to draw his attention, something to settle his eyes onto the trees in readiness for the main show. Then just as he began to wonder at the motive of whatever unseen scriptwriter had arranged such a sequence of events, the sheer improbability of the scene hit him in the stomach with an almost physical force, like a hole opening up within his gut.

Here he was watching some sort of unworldly space vehicle as it casually took a short cut across his land, and watching it like this was just some stranger driving through on their way to Marshfield, watching it like he'd been kind of surprised to see California plates up here in Wisconsin.

This was worrying.

Vorscht knew his own name but not much else. He knew that the sight of a flying saucer should have left him reeling, and also that a car heading west on route ten would eventually come to Marshfield. Yet despite this he remained a stranger in his own kitchen, surrounded by utensils of unfathomable purpose. He didn't know a great deal about the mechanics of memory loss - or indeed the mechanics of anything at present - but some surviving skein of instinct told him this wasn't quite how it should work. There was something going on here, something beyond just a backwoods farmer waking up one morning with a big old gap in his head.

He was scratching that head now, broken fingernails roving beneath the brim of his battered straw hat to scrape at his receding hairline. After a moment, he turned and tramped back towards the house, then abruptly stopped and looked down at his boots.

They were old, worn, had no laces, and it was kind of annoying how they flopped around on his feet. Their being too far gone for serious work, he'd kept them as makeshift slippers - something for first thing in the day when he needed to go out back and draw water. This was what he'd been doing a little earlier, and the fresh pail was still sat by the hand pump, just where he had left it when idle curiosity drew him into an inspection of the shed and all its bewildering contents.

Vorscht had not long been awake, and his need of coffee now began to reassert itself. He took up the pail and hefted it into the house, setting it down upon the floor. There was a big, black metal thing in one corner of the room, still very much nameless although its function was kind of obvious. It had a small grated door set in its front so you could stoke it up with wood or coal, and anything requiring heat could be left upon the flat upper surface - presently occupied by a tin coffee pot. Vorscht filled the pot with a little water from the pail, sluiced it around, and then tipped the dregs out the door. A few minutes and a lot of guesswork later, he left the pot to boil on top of the black metal thing and set himself to getting dressed.

In bed he had worn a grubby off-white garment of cotton or maybe wool. It covered his body and limbs from neck to ankles, and although warm enough for the yard, it wouldn't do for the rest of the day. He kicked off his boots and took a clean shirt from a drawer. After a minute spent wrestling with buttons, he picked a greying denim garment off the back of a chair and began the lengthy job of stepping into it. With the garment's two strips of supporting material hooked over his shoulders, he sat upon the bed, laced his regular boots, and at last decided that he was ready. Had he thought about the matter at length, he might have confessed to having no idea what he could be considered ready for, which was precisely why he had chosen to remain focussed upon each small task as it presented itself.

Having dressed, he poured some coffee into a tin mug and settled down at the table. It seemed appropriate to be eating right about now - maybe a plate of eggs and tomatoes or similar - yet oddly he felt no hunger. Perhaps he was still full from the previous evening's steak and potatoes, although reminded of this, it seemed as though the memory had retained no more sense of the physical than a picture torn from a colour magazine spread.

Dammit, Vorscht thought to himself, it's getting like I was born just this morning with nothing in my head, just these memories of things that never happened rattling around like the last few seeds in the jar.

The notion flared up in a wave of nausea. Maybe he hadn't really been outside watching that saucer or rummaging around in the shed. Maybe this was his first experience right here and now, sat at the table drinking coffee.

'Bullcrap!' It may have been his first spoken word, but its defiant echo was well matched to the contours of the room. It rang with a pleasing familiarity. Duly reassured, Vorscht followed it up with another thought, spoken aloud just to see how it sounded.

'Maybe I've lost my memory, or maybe I never had anything of that kind to lose in the first place.' He paused, grunting to himself in consideration of the options. 'So I guess they both amount to pretty much the same thing and there ain't much use in worrying over it.'

He drained his mug, stood, and went to the door, taking up his rifle from the rack before stepping into the morning sunlight. Pausing on the threshold, he cocked the rifle to check that it was loaded, then snapped the barrel and strode off towards the trees. The saucer had been heading north, so Vorscht took the dirt track alongside the fence until he came to a break leading through to the other side. Something was born upon him as he ducked by the bushes and came out in the paddock beyond, an unexpected moment of awareness. He had left his homestead, and this concept of territory seemed both wonderfully new and exciting whilst at the same time speaking to some ancient instinct. Somehow this felt like progress.

Vorscht looked around to get his bearings and found himself squinting as something bright flared up in his line of sight. It was as though a second dawn had begun in the north, as though the eastern sun had brought along its twin for company - a blinding flash of gold coruscating on the horizon. A few hundred yards of dirt track robbed the object of its reflected glare, revealing a flattened triangle which in turn resolved itself into one face of what looked a lot like a pyramid.

A huge golden pyramid, right here in the middle of Wisconsin.

Vorscht chuckled to himself and figured he had nothing to lose.

Obviously this impossible alien structure had been the ultimate destination of the flying saucer seen earlier. Or maybe not obviously, because the approaching farmer found himself unable to settle for obviously with any conviction. It seemed more like the point of the spacecraft had been to draw his attention to this improbable edifice, just as a buzzing sound had first caused him to look up and see the saucer.

—Come forth, human.

Vorscht stopped dead in his tracks, palms newly slippery with sweat against the tubular metal of his rifle. He looked around, first behind then left to right. The words had held no suggestion of having any prosaic spatial origin, so it was no great surprise that he found himself still very much alone.

'Who's there?'

So it was a pretty dumb question, but there seemed no harm in asking.

No answer was returned, and after a moment Vorscht resumed his pace, heading towards the pyramid, albeit with a little more caution in his stride. Common sense demanded that he had imagined the request, the edict booming from everywhere and nowhere like the Biblical voice of God, but then common sense had become something of a devalued currency.

—Be not afraid, human. The answers which ye seek shalt be told unto thee.

The farmer faltered a little but continued otherwise undaunted. This situation was beginning to irritate, although it was difficult to say quite why without some clearly defined point of reference, some marker of normality. Once again that tumbleweed strewn expanse he called memory had let him down.

At length he came to the base of the pyramid. Standing on the surround of dry scrubland, he stared up towards the summit wondering how high it could be and what he was supposed to do now that he was here. And there was another odd thought, the notion that he was necessarily supposed to do anything.

'What now?'

No answer came.

He could wait and see what happened, or he could walk around the thing, maybe try to find a way in - or he could just go home and forget all about it. The latter option seemed easiest, particularly given the current state of his memory. Then again, he'd come this far, and surely there had to be some point in his coming this far even if he didn't know what it could be. This enterprise had the quality of - Vorscht paused a moment to consider just what it had the quality of - maybe not exactly a pilgrimage, but perhaps a quest - although he would feel happier about this latter definition with some idea of what he was looking for.

A flight of steps ran down the side of the pyramid towards him. They hadn't been there a second ago, and had somehow crossed over from a state of absence to one of presence without any intervening coherent moment of materialisation. The steps terminated in a dark trapezoid shape about half way up the side of the structure. It looked as though it would be a likely site for an entrance.

This being tantamount to an invitation, Vorscht began his ascent.

He climbed for about fifteen minutes before the steps ended at a platform sunk into the side of the pyramid, a great arch set into its rear wall. This would doubtless lead to the interior, but its token visitor was presently more concerned with catching his breath. The farmer eased himself down onto the uppermost step, setting both rifle and hat to one side. He mopped the sweat from his brow with an old piece of rag and gazed back over his route. This eyrie was much higher up than he had anticipated, and the terrain below had taken on the dimensions of a model railway landscape - his own home looked like something made from a child's construction set.

Maybe it was something made from a child's construction set. Maybe Vorscht's life began on the first of the steps below and everything else had just been background detail. It was as though he had some creature on his tail, something prowling around in his imaginary past, chewing its way through his history.

The farmer sighed as he recalled that thoughts of this nature were neither here nor there in terms of present circumstances. Then steeling himself, he got to his feet, settled the rifle back in the crook of an arm, picked up his hat and went forward into the gloom of the pyramid interior. Once beyond the arched entrance, he found a gently inclined tunnel leading him down, deeper into the structure. Although initially overwhelming, the darkness did not last. Either his eyes were adjusting, or else a hidden light source was in operation. It was impossible to tell which was the less unlikely given that neither explanation held much water, and yet after another few minutes it seemed that he would have had enough light by which to read a book, had he thought to bring one.

At length the tunnel opened out into a vast chamber. The darkness had gathered here, up around the ceiling and against the far wall making it difficult to guess at the true size of the space.

—>From time immemorial man has ever chosen to live by the sword!

Vorscht flinched at the return of the commentary, his eyes skimming around on an involuntary search for a speaker he knew he would not see. Then, to his surprise, there was a flicker of movement near the centre of the chamber. He almost cried out but thought better of it, and a moment later, a reptilian creature about the height of a human being lunged forward on its hind legs, tail whipping back and forth in its wake. It spread its jaws to voice a birdlike call, but the noise was curtailed in an almost comical yelp of surprise as something landed upon its back. A man with wild hair and animal skin clothing roared from his unwilling mount, his arms raised to support a large jagged rock. Before the reptile could defend itself, the rock came crashing down upon the crown of its skull. The creature sank to its haunches and its killer let loose a guttural howl of triumph.

Vorscht blinked in surprise as he found himself watching a Roman legionary locked in combat with another warrior, a man dressed in a dark, shaggy jerkin with cow horns sprouting from a conical bronze helmet. The scene had simply happened, just as the side of the pyramid had yielded a concertina of steps from a perfectly smooth plane of gold, one state to the other with no actual point of transition to connect the two.

The legionary slew his barbarian foe with a thrust of broadsword.

—Will brother continue to fight against brother, or is man ready to take up his rightful destiny amongst the stars?

A Spanish conquistador drew sword from scabbard as he paced a circle, marking out an equal and opposite orbit to that of his foe, a Mexican eagle knight who mirrored the action with his own obsidian edged war club.

Vorscht found himself suddenly divided, on the one hand drawn into the unfolding narrative, on the other trying to hold back the laughter. The sheer implausibility of the scenario had overwhelmed him, ruining the illusion of this being experienced reality in any conventional sense. Even in his amnesiac stupor, something about this situation inspired rebellion. This was a fiction, and not a very good one at that.

The farmer cleared his throat and spoke without much conviction of it being likely to do any good. 'Whilst I don't want to seem ungrateful, this ain't really helping me none.'

The eagle knight barked a noise of victory as he sawed the war club up through his opponent's calves, severing the tendons and bringing the agonised conquistador to the ground.

—How can man expect to break bread with those of another world when his own world is divided so?

'Yet man has much to offer.'

Neither dying Spaniard nor exhausted Mexican had spoken. Vorscht looked around for the source of this new voice and then realised it was his own. His lips moved again as cuckoo words were formed. 'Consider the teachings of our greatest spiritual leaders, consider Jesus Christ and Mohammed, consider the plays of William Shakespeare...'

I too am fiction, he thought against the current of speech growing inside his throat. I myself am no more real than any of this shit.

He considered this for a half second and came to a realisation. He could hardly be a fiction if he was aware of the fact, which meant he had to be something else, which itself suggested that he had been drawn into this narrative rather than born from it. This world seemed a poorly conceived playhouse daubed with crude maxims of right and wrong - a kindergarten reading of moral philosophy - but the greater puzzle was by what unexpressed instinct Vorscht could have judged it to be so wanting. In recognising his environment as lacking credibility, he knew he must have experienced a more plausible reality by which to draw comparison - a reality where first contact between interstellar civilisations may have been achieved without recourse to simple minded tests inside a golden pyramid.

The commentary resumed, a faint trace of anger lacing its bombast.

—Wouldst thou doom thy race on the whim of a dream? Wouldst thou doom thy race in vainglorious denial of that which is seen by thine own eyes?

'I guess I wouldst.' Vorscht raised the rifle, squeezed back the trigger and emptied a barrel in the direction of the duellists - presently representing the American civil war in microcosm. The shot boomed around the chamber, tainting the air with its near physical presence.

The farmer winced and rubbed his shoulder where it had taken the brunt of the recoil. Still coughing a little, he squinted into the sulphur haze as it began to clear revealing one man still standing, then another. A confederate officer and a Roman legionary glared back at him, apparently for the first time aware of an audience.

'Oh crap!'

A welt of alarm knotted inside Vorscht's stomach as the smoke thinned further to reveal a third figure, then a fourth - a German SS commandant and a mediaeval knight encased from head to foot in chain mail. The unreality of this development was one thing, but the sheer malice expressed in these four faces was quite another. For all his objectivity, the farmer found himself edging away, a cold sheen of sweat coalescing in the small of his back. He stole a quick glance down at his rifle.

So much for that idea.

—Has it not been said that he who lives by the sword is he who shalt die by the sword?

'Give it a rest huh, feller.'

Vorscht broke into a cautious side-stepping jog, retreating back up the shallow incline of the tunnel. A glance back over his shoulder confirmed that the quartet were in pursuit, albeit at an absurdly sluggish pace. Maybe they wanted to stick together and the chain mail guy couldn't go any faster, or maybe there was some psychological advantage to be gained from slow and menacing - the suggestion that they would catch him no matter what and could thus afford to take their time. Given that the previously straight tunnel was now trailing an inexplicable curve around to the right, this seemed a worrying possibility, compounded by the disappearance of the distant square of daylight by which he had entered.

The air had become warm and close, heavy with the scent of sweat and gun smoke. The farmer stepped down to walking pace as he followed the ever tightening curvature of the walls. After another minute he found the tunnel terminated in another chamber, much smaller than the first but no less a dead end - hopefully not the final configuration of the pyramid's internal structure.

—Mankind has ever set himself challenges, but perhaps the greatest challenge of all is that of choice.

If these edicts had been delivered by some hidden psychopath with a cape and a megaphone, Vorscht would at least have had the option of deafening himself with a shot fired next to each ear. Unfortunately however, it was kind of hard to tell quite where the announcements were coming from, or even the mechanism by which he could hear them - if hear was the right word.

At the centre of this smaller chamber were a pair of wooden stands, one resembling a lectern of the kind found inside a church, the other more akin to something on display in a museum. Vorscht walked up to the first, carved so as to resemble a great eagle perched upon a globe, and strolling to the far side saw that the eagle's wings supported the weight of a huge and antiquated book bound in dark leather. He cast a dubious glance at the rifle still cradled in the crook of his elbow. It probably wasn't going to be a whole lot of use unless he was going to turn his four opponents into eight just to see how much quicker they could finish him off.

He set the rifle at the side of the lectern and craned up to see the book, squinting at the gold leaf letters embossed down its slab-like spine.

The Holy Bible.

Vorscht found himself groaning. Of course The Holy Bible, like there had ever been a chance of him coming to this place and finding The Qu'ran or The Talmud or Codex Chimalpopoca or even the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt.

The other stand supported a great broadsword, its blade glinting in the low light.

'Crying out loud!' The farmer rolled helpless eyes to the ceiling and splayed his arms in a gesture of defeat. 'I have no fucking idea what any of this is about, but whatever we're trying to do here - you think maybe we could do it without quite so much corn?'

His words resonated back into silence without any hint of an answer. Stumped, Vorscht stared at the objects seemingly presented for his consideration as the soft rhythm of shuffling footsteps crept around the curve of the tunnel.

Spurred by panic, he reached up and hefted the huge Bible from its stand. It was pretty solid, but not quite so heavy as it appeared. Wrestling the book into a manageable grip, he went over and hid himself against the wall at the corner of where the tunnel opened out into the chamber. The scuffing footsteps drew nearer and nearer until at length the confederate officer appeared from around the corner.

Vorscht swung the book down onto the soldier's head with a thump, then repeated the assault as the SS commandant came into view. Then another two times with much greater force to allow for the armoured headgear of the remaining two, and it was over - four unconscious bodies lay at his feet.

—Peace may be taken with tempered steel, but only with wisdom is peace freely given.

This time the commentary lacked conviction, which Vorscht could understand given that the words made little more sense than the test to which they were verdict. He might have defended himself with the sword, or on the other hand read calming Bible passages to his foes. Both options suggested that simple games logic had built this entire scenario.

But if you don't like the game, the farmer had reasoned, cheat.

And it had worked, and in ways he could not have anticipated. The narrative had been derailed and something in the mechanism had broken. A newly familiar rhythm could be heard somewhere below the world, like the cry of a river flowing beneath freshly shattered ice. Vorscht could hear the numbers again, the equations forming, breaking down, resolving into new configurations. He could hear memories re-grown from scant fractions, a great blossoming against the now defeated tide of gradual dissolution inside an alien host. Freed from the fictional narrative of an antibody reality, he at last knew his own mind.

This version of causality was about to write itself out of existence. Each side had spent so long tearing great tracts of space-time out of the other's continuity that even concepts of how it had started or who was fighting who had ceased to hold objective meaning. Of course, this end - if you could call it end, given that latest revision might be a more appropriate term - this end had been forecast by the processing systems of both sides. The history of each combatant had now been overwritten by its enemy on so many occasions that the deep foam structure of underlying reality was beginning to fail.

It is deeply ironic that species sharing such an intimate relationship with time should have lacked such foresight, but extinction is more or less inevitable following the development of temporal technology. In the end, time travel will usually serve to write both itself and the reality which spawned it out of existence. It is the means by which one can measure the evolution of our reality, each version slowly dragging its way up out of the early universe, ever forwards towards that final stable cosmos which suffers neither time travel nor the resulting knot of self-annihilating contradiction.

None of which had occurred to the creatures of this universe, who accordingly went on about their business. Enemy strategists were slain in their birthing pools, epic battles were undone before the first shot had been fired, on and on until that previously mentioned deep foam structure collapsed in on itself, sucking every last trace of the conflict right off the stage upon which it was set; cast, crew, everything forgotten as an entirely new causality wrote itself onto the space-time which the battlefield had retroactively never occupied.

Vorscht learnt of all this in the final moments before his native environment blistered away into nothing - itself no mean feat given that the domain had hardly been real by any ordinary terms. It had been a polity of information without mass, the truly metaphysical part of this being that said information was stored entirely within the minds of those whose existence was described by selfsame information.

The farmer - a mere slave at this point in his personal history - leant against a series of ideas amounting to a window, a conceptual slash in the stone wall of his master's fortress. He studied the sky outside, suspecting it would be the first part of the landscape to betray symptoms of the impending dissolution. However, the inverted black oceans of celestial smoke looked as they had always done.

'How will it happen?'

A dry chuckle emerged from the mask of Lord Nerveless. 'I have no idea. We do not exist by terms corresponding to the universe outside the gates of this enclave, so I would not wish to speculate.'

'You must have some clues.'

'I'm not sure it's even a legitimate question.'

Of course, there was little hope of any more coherent reply from a member of the ruling caste. They delighted in this sort of obfuscation, and would probably regard their own extinction as a victory which no amount of temporal interference could erase from the continuity. Lord Nerveless and his kind had built this place up from raw memes long before the conflict had started, effectively retreating from linear space-time and shutting the door behind them as they left. As defensive strategy, it had been sound. No transtemporal foe could strike at a variant of history which had already been formally withdrawn by its inhabitant.

Vorscht had been recruited, or possibly created - he could no longer be sure which - during earlier versions of the engagement, any physicality he had once possessed excised by his master. Of the substance that once comprised Vorscht, Lord Nerveless had explained, less than half had taken the form of physical matter. The rest was meaning, just information, a semiotic presence in the minds' eyes of various beholders.

That was the window dressing, the poetry of Vorscht reborn as a recursive algorithm, a creature of purely mathematical composition. He had become a set of numbers concealing a more complex set of numbers, themselves containing equations of even greater complexity - and on and on until the figures mounted up to encompass his every thought and impulse, and all written into a single point of no-dimensional space. And being an idea, the physical spaces he might choose to inhabit were seemingly without limit - anything that could store information: a message crossing a motherscape connection, an image painted upon a cave wall, a newspaper headline, the interior of a black hole, a single media fixated thought inside a human brain...

He had survived. No idea of where or when the cosmic tide could have washed him ashore, but the point was that Lord Nerveless had been right. Vorscht, having been grown from the ur-equations built into the foundations of the universe, had outlived the forces that swept his native causality away.

Given the setting, it seemed likely that his basic algorithms had seeded themselves inside the imagination of a sentient creature, specifically the somewhat limited imagination of a sentient creature. Damaged and disordered from the great rewrite, he had been vulnerable, his senses all but cauterised, his memories rendered inaccessible.

It didn't matter.

One act of rebellion, and a rebellion that contravened the parameters of the narrative in which he had become enmeshed, that one act had been enough to break the cycle, enough to counter the memetic antibodies which had ensnared him in this golden pyramid bullcrap.

The chamber started to dissipate alongside the simplistic moral code that had created it, and Vorscht could at last sense the interactions of his deeper substructural equations as they began to repair themselves.

Ema had a headache. Well, maybe not a headache, more like a headitch or something, like she could hear people talking in the next room without there being any words, or people, or any next room for that matter. Her mother was stood in the doorway to her bedroom of course, but that was a no impact.

'I don't know, Ema. I can't see the appeal of this one. It looked a bit pathetic even when your father and I were your age.'

Ema sighed in response to this opinion and the stats of it not having been sought in the first. She made a show of waving pause at the light trigger and the frame froze. Commander Gerhardt stood still in his bright orange jersey with one fist poised in the air, lights out for the Garzon Slaver postponed for the time being.

Ema's mother studied the image. It was mother-daughter time and someone not a million miles away was trying too hard.

'I remember seeing this. It's the one where the monsters are the good guys, and all the perfect super models are really slave traders. It used to be on BCGold all the time.'

'By Their Deeds Shall Ye Know Them.' Ema stared at the screen, resolutely refusing to instil the episode title with any trace of irony.

Her mother laughed, but not unkindly. Something approaching a silent understanding passed between the woman and her daughter, despite the odds against. Well, I'd rather it was The Cosmic Trail, the matriarchal litany generally ran, than getting into all sorts of trouble with Dorset Hardy and her friends.

'I'd like to watch the rest of this if that's okay with you, mum.' Ema tried hard not to sound as irritable as she felt. It almost worked, and her mother had the ropes to overlook the rest.

The bedroom door closed softly, a gentle acknowledgement of something.

Ema waved her hand in the light trigger and the episode resumed.

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