Chapter Twenty-One: And then there was way too much action and plot and not enough characterization but hey I guess things have to eventually happen
Faye hadn’t been inside a Basement Fractal since the ‘70s. She had forgotten how terribly effective they were as traps.
“I don’t think we’re too far in,” Tarin muttered, studying their surroundings. They had just turned a corner and arrived in some new section of the Fractal. Faye had to give whoever set the trap credit—she really did feel like she was in a basement. The room was dark-ish, a quarter full of unwanted futons and forgotten vases. One ancient-looking microwave. There was a dark corner on the other side of the room. The corner was mostly obscured by a full-sized poster of Tres Dedos. Faye wanted to go to that far corner. Wanted to see if there was something past it. Wanted to know if Tres Dedos was taller than her. The wanting would have pulled her along, and past the next corner, too, and then through another half-wall, and another unfinished bathroom door, and another hole in the floor needing of repair. It would have pulled her on and on for however long it wanted.
Thankfully, Joss was a killjoy, and had no desire to explore abandoned basements. After a few turns, she had screamed about a spider, declared her desire to “leave stat,” and had demanded an exit. Such demands broke through the haze of curiosity compelling the rest of them forward, and had clued them into the fact that most basements weren’t this mind-bendingly large. And that they weren’t really supposed to be in a basement. And that they certainly weren’t supposed to be in a Basement Fractal. No, they were supposed to be in a hotel across from the Plaza de la Independencia. Tarin had found some League markings by the plaza’s central monument—a memorial to revolutionaries from 1809—that had led them to the hotel. More markings in the hotel’s lobby had led them to what had, from the outside, appeared to be a broom closet. And then they were in an infinitely expanding basement, and had momentarily forgotten every other detail of their lives, hopes, and dreams.
“Do you remember the way in?” Tarin asked Faye. Faye nodded, then shrugged, taking Baby out of the sling Joss was wearing. Tarin took Baby and Faye took the sling. They had made the sling out of strips of cloth and bits of tarp and a few feet of rope, all woven together. Faye unravelled it as quickly as she could manage. She separated the rope out and handed the rest of the textiles to Joss, who was beginning to look like maybe she was one of those “claustrophobic” types of people. A horrible thing to be, Faye thought, and especially when trapped in an underground Fractal. Oh well. She snaked the rope through one of her belt loops and tied it off. She then threaded the other end of the rope through Tarin’s belt, then around Joss’s waist, then through one of the holes in Tristan’s coat.
“There. That should do it,’ Faye said, tugging on the rope, making sure everyone was more or less attached.
“Um… Faye… why?” Joss asked, eyes wide, breathing shallower by the minute.
“Pretty good odds we lose each other, in this place,” Faye said, looking up and noticing, for the first time, that the ceiling was only half there.
“This was a budget job,” Faye said to Tarin, pointing up. He looked, then nodded to himself.
“Would explain why Joss noticed the spiders. Would also explain the spiders, now that I think about it.” Quality Fractals were species-specific. Otherwise, people would be wandering alongside pigeons and rats and cockroaches. Or, in this case, spiders. And people wandering alongside pigeons and rats and cockroaches and spiders tended to question their life choices. And “questioning their life choices” was the exact opposite of what a Fractal wanted its subjects to do. Fractals, to work, needed their subjects to be as un-self-aware as possible. But quality Fractals could be prohibitively expensive, both in time and money. Budget Fractals could work in a pinch, of course. This one had certainly worked well enough. There just hadn’t been enough curiosity and compulsion woven into the architecture of the thing to keep them going on, ad infinitem, without noticing the small horde of creepy-crawleys streaming along beside them.
“I wonder how many spiders this thing has sucked up?”
“W-would you stop saying spiders,” Joss hissed, pinching her eyes closed. “Can we please go.”
“As soon as we find the way out. Which should be the way we came. Unless we’re made to misremember that, too. Does everybody remember us coming from that way?” Tarin asked, pointing behind him. Everyone nodded, and so they went. They were less sure about the next room, where nobody could quite agree upon which way they had walked around a sagging green couch. The next hallway was even less certain, as Joss was the only one who remembered anything at all about how they had gotten there—apparently they had squeezed through a gap in the wall, halfway down the hall, beside a Buzz Lightyear nightlight. But by that point Joss was also the only one completely focused—the panic attack she was barely keeping under wraps probably had something to do with it—and Faye thought it best Joss lead the way. Everyone else was only half convinced they should be retracing their steps at all. Tristan kept trying to walk towards the next dark corner.
Joss pulled them through the broom closet, gasping and crying. Faye blinked a few times, shocked they had actually made it out. Tarin grabbed Tristan by the shirt and yanked the poor boy through before closing the door firmly behind them all. Baby was playing with a spider, of all things. A friendly spider, Faye hoped. She flicked it out of Baby’s fingers, just to be safe.
“Well. That was close. I wonder what day it is? Some of those Fractals can really eat time, you know?” That only made Joss cry harder. Faye put her arm around the other woman and patted her back. She wished she’d had some chocolate, right about then. She could’ve really used a Justin’s peanut butter cup. And it would probably make Joss feel better, too. She began to fantasize about peanut butter, and tried to think back to the last time she’d had any. It had been too long.
Tarin was being slightly more productive. He unroped them all, for starters. Then He began fiddling with the door. He traced the lines in the wood, felt at the places where the hinges met the wall. He fingered the keyhole beneath the knob, and Faye had to bite back the three jokes that came to her mind. But then something in the door’s mechanism clicked, and the metal encasing the knob sprang open, revealing nothing more than a short, sharp needle. Tarin stared at it, brow raised. Tristan cursed. They all twisted to face him, surprised. Faye kept forgetting he was there.
“I’m—I’m so sorry. I know this. I should’ve, anyway,” he murmured. “I wasn’t paying attention. I’m sorry. I should’ve known there would be an identity check. And a booby trap. I’m sorry.” He reached his index finger out and pricked it on the needle. He pulled his hand away, leaving behind a drop of blood, which twisted its way around and down the needle, turning black, then blue, then a sort of mossy-green. It reached the base of the needle and disappeared into the wood of the door. There was a beat, a clicking sort of sound, and then the door swung open. Tristan walked in without glancing back. Faye was less confident, though she suspected this was mostly above board. She peered inside, noticed that the room was neither a broom closet nor a Basement Fractal, and followed Tristan in. She tried to pull Joss in with her, but the woman would not budge. She held on to the doorframe, muttering and whimpering and sounding very much like she was trying to broker a deal with God. Tarin came behind her and “gently” nudged her in, an action which would have led to hysterics had the room they entered not been so immediately distracting.
It was one of those rooms with many doors and many windows. Faye had no idea where the room was, as the view out the windows was not of the city. Not of any city, for that matter. Clouds spread out beneath them, thick and silvery, bright with sunlight. And quiet, Faye thought. She supposed the storm was on the underside.
In the middle of the room was a circular table with ten chairs. In the middle of the table were dozens of books and journals, some stacked, some scattered about. In one of the chairs sat a man, tall and tired-looking, dark hair frazzled, white coat worn. Worn, but clean, Faye noted. Impressive. She had to stop herself from looking down at her own very-much-not-clean clothes.
“Well, this is properly climactic,” Faye whispered to Tarin, “A secret room and everything. If we’re being honest, I didn’t think you’d ever actually find the guy. Thought this was going to be one of those dead-end jobs.” Tarin rolled his eyes, but said nothing. The frazzled-yet-clean man seemed to be in a daze, and hadn’t altogether noticed their presence.
“Chemie?” Tristan asked, voice catching. “Chemie, it’s me, it’s—“ sobs choked off Tristan’s words. He scurried over to Chemie and threw his arms around the other man.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry—there w-were people there, p-p-people, Chemie, and it looked like a girl, Chemie, and, a-and—“ but he couldn’t go on. He collapsed into Chemie’s shoulder and wept. Chemie seemed unaware of the entire exchange.
“Hey, um, Tarin,” Faye whispered to Tarin, confused. “Is he… still alive?”
“Pretty sure,” Tarin said, shrugging out of his pack. Tristan was still crying too hard to realize there was something off about Chemie. He kept whimpering about “it looking like a human child” and “she was the worst, the worst, a little demon” and “maybe we shouldn’t have messed with the universe, Chemie, maybe—“ and then more crying.
“So, Tarin,” Joss asked, bouncing Baby up and down. ”Are we finally going to get to read this message you’ve been carrying?”
“Oooh, Joss,” Faye said, “first rule about fight club.” Joss rolled her eyes. She’d gotten that response several times since Tarin had first joined their little group.
“Faye’s right, of course,” Tarin said, pulling a small, tarp-wrapped parcel out of his pack. He pulled the tarp off, revealing a brown paper packet. It looked normal enough. “Though I can’t do anything about you being in the room when I give him the message, now, can I? Or are you going to report me to the Board?” He glanced at Faye, a small grin twisting at the corner of his mouth.
“The board? There’s a board?” Joss asked.
“Of course. There has to be an enforcement mechanism, Joss. How else could we provide consistent and on-brand service?” Faye asked, taking the rope from Tarin and the other sling materials from out of Joss’s pack, where they’d been unceremoniously stuffed. Baby was squirming quite a bit, and Faye thought it was high time to remake the sling.
“Of course. Silly me.”
Tristan had finally noticed Chemie’s general lack of responsiveness.
“Chemie?” He asked. “Chemie, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing, I don’t think,” Tarin said, walking over to the two men. He gently pulled Tristan up and out of the way.
“Chemie,” Tarin said to the relatively comatose man, “I have a package for you, sent from a man named Bo. He said you’d know who he was, and laughed when I asked for a last name. Which I really didn’t think was terribly funny, but whatever. You can have your own little jokes. Anyway, he reviewed your memories, like you asked.” Tarin reached into the brown packet and removed what looked like a snow globe. Small rainbows of light twisted around inside the glass. They seemed a little bit shy. A bit strange, and a little bit manic.
Tarin threw the globe on the ground. The glass shattered, the light escaped, expanded, filled the room. Faye was briefly filled with impressions and thoughts that did not belong to her. And then the light condensed and rushed into Chemie, and it was over.
The man gasped. He coughed, he hacked. There was a moment when Faye thought he might even retch.
“Ummm… Chemie?” Tristan asked, half-reaching towards the man, uncertain. Chemie, for his part, looked like he was seeing eighteen different worlds at once. Faye knew the feeling, and could only sympathize.
“Blink it out, that’s right,” she said, gently slapping his face. He grunted, hands grasping at his head, and did what she said. He blinked hard, several times, and his vision eventually returned him to this place.
“I—who—what?” He asked, looking from face to face, then around the room. “Give me a minute,” he muttered, knuckling his forehead. He froze, mid-knuckle, as something occurred to him. His head snapped up.
“Tristan,” he said, voice low and urgent, “Tristan, we have to call it off. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but we were wrong. We were so wrong. This stream thing… I think messing with it would trigger some sort of apocalypse.”
Joss, Tarin, and Faye froze. Tristan’s eyes widened to a seemingly impossible degree. Truly, Faye was surprised his eyeballs did’t fall out. He swallowed hard.
“Um… Chemie? I already… so, like… I already went?”
Chemie’s face blanched.
“No… oh, &%^#, &%^# &%^# &%^#.”
Tristan, not at all reading the room, went on.
“I left four months ago, Chemie. I… well, you said it’d work, right? You gave me the green light?” He seemed to really doubt that last bit, now that he had to scrupulously review his own memories. “But I lost time, going, and then reappeared in the middle of nowhere. It’s taken me months to get back. I’ve been gone four months.”
Chemie shot up and ran to the windows, staring out at a world he clearly had not been expecting to see. He fell to his knees, forehead pressed against the glass. He began to cry.
“Hate to continue to serve the “bearer of bad news” function, but I’ve one more message from Bo,” Tarin said, pulling a succession of sticky notes out of the brown paper packet. He cleared his voice, and read.
“Dear Al Chemens, et al, of the League’s forty-third division,
You have seriously misunderstood various elemental aspects of this world. Mr. Al Chemens, I have reviewed and annotated your memories. I did not make any revisions—I don’t do that anymore—but have indicated several places where I think you might consider revising your conclusions.
As I’m sure you are quickly realizing, Mr. Al Chemens, you have lost some time, and somebody—perhaps several somebodies—in the forty-third division have acted upon plans you were not done theorizing. I would say “it will be okay,” but it might not be, and I’m not a very good liar and have almost no bedside manner. Yes, the world was ailing, as you saw and as you said, but the actions of your division have triggered an actual apocalypse. I recommend meddling as little as possible, from here on out, and leaving all future cosmic interventions to those less wedded to black and white thinking. You really are a rigid intellectual, Mr. Al Chemens, and, truly, reviewing your memories was painful, frustrating, and altogether depressing. I feel like the League has evolved past anything I ever wanted it to be. I have begun taking steps to disband it. Good luck with everything.
Faye couldn’t tell who looked more physically ill: Chemie, Tristan, or Joss. But she was only half paying attention to them, distracted as she was by a memory of her own.
“Hey, Tarin,” she said, elbowing him, “I think I’ve had tea with that guy. Short fellow? Long beard?” Tarin nodded.
“More or less,” he said. “He’s definitely used Couriers before. Chances are good you’ve run into him.”
Faye grinned. It had been a good cup of tea.
“What do you know. Small world. Never mentioned he was a Leaguer.”