Story Excerpt

3-adica

by Greg Egan

 

ASF_SepOct2018_400x570Sagreda strode briskly through the dank night air, hoping to reach her destination and return before the fog rolled in from the Thames. It was bad enough stumbling over the cobblestones when the ground vanished from sight, but once the pea soup thickened at eye level, any assailant lurking in the gloom would have her at a disadvantage.

Urchins and touts called out as she passed. “Shine yer shoes! Thruppence a pair!”

“Block yer hat! Like new for sixpence!”

“Fake yer death, guv’nor?” The last from a grime-faced child in a threadbare coat who looked about eight years old, his eyes almost hidden beneath his brown cloth cap.

“Not tonight,” Sagreda replied. Whether the boy was sentient or not, his appearance almost certainly bore no relationship to his true nature, but it was still hard to walk by without even stopping to inquire if he had a safe place to sleep.

She found Cutpurse Lane and hurried through the shadows toward the lights of the tavern. Gap-toothed women with grubby shawls and kabuki-esque makeup offered her their services in an indecipherable patois that Sagreda hoped never to hear enough of to begin to understand. “I’m not a customer,” she replied wearily. “Save your breath.” Whatever the women took this to mean, it silenced them, and her choice of words was ambiguous enough that Sagreda doubted she was risking deletion. She was an upstanding gentleman, who’d stepped out to meet some fine fellow from his regiment—or his school, or his club, or wherever it was these mutton-chopped fossils were supposed to have made each other’s acquaintance. Having no truck with ladies of the night need not imply that she was breaking character.

In the tavern, Sagreda hung her overcoat on a hook near the door, and swept her gaze as casually as she could across the front room’s dozen tables, trying not to appear lost, or too curious about anyone else’s business.

She took a seat at an unoccupied table, removed her gloves, and slipped them into her waistcoat pocket. Her bare hands with their huge, stubby fingers disconcerted her much more than the occasional sensation of her whiskers brushing against her lips. Still, the inadvertent sex change had rendered her a thousand times safer; from what she’d seen so far of Midnight on Baker Street, women here existed mainly to shriek in horror, sell their bodies, or lie sprawled on the street bleeding until the gutters ran red. Doyle, Dickens, Stoker, Stevenson, and Shelley would all have lost their breakfast if they’d ever foreseen the day when their work would be pastiched and blended into a malodorous potpourri whose most overpowering component was the stench of misogynous Ripperology.

A serving girl approached the table. “Ale!” Sagreda grunted dyspeptically, aiming for both a brusqueness befitting her status and a manner sufficiently off-putting that she wouldn’t be asked to supplement her order with details she couldn’t provide. When the girl returned with a mug full of something brown and revolting, Sagreda handed her the first coin she plucked out of her pocket and watched for a reaction: the amount was excessive, but not shocking. “Bless you, sir!” the girl said happily, retreating before her benefactor could change his mind.

Sagreda pretended to take a sip of the ale, raising the mug high enough to dampen her mustache with foam, which she removed with the back of her thumb. No one seemed to be staring at her, and if there were customers of Midnight among the customers of the tavern, she could only hope that however much she felt like the most conspicuously talentless actor, wearing the most laughably ill-fitting costume, of all the unwilling players trapped in this very bad piece of dinner theater, to a casual onlooker she was just one more red-faced, gout-ridden extra in the Hogarthian crowd.

A spindle-limbed man with pinched, gaunt features sidled up to the table. “Alfred Jingle at your service, Captain,” he proclaimed, bowing slightly.

Sagreda stood. “A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Jingle. Will you join me?”

“The pleasure’s all mine, I’m sure.”

They sat, and Sagreda summoned the serving girl to bring a second mug.

“Do you think it’s safe to talk here?” Sagreda asked quietly when the girl had left.

“Absolutely,” Jingle replied. “So long as we move our lips and contribute to the background noise, we could spend the night muttering ‘rhubarb rhubarb’ for all anyone would care.”

Sagreda wasn’t so blasé—but if they slipped out into an alley for the sake of privacy, that would just be begging for desanguination.

She said, “I’m told you’re the man with everything, here: memory maps, instruction tables, access to the stack?”

He nodded calmly. “That’s me.”

Sagreda was taken aback by his directness. In most of the dreary game-worlds she’d traversed, her question would have been met with some kind of reticence, or the intimation of a shakedown: Maybe I am, maybe I’m not. It all depends on exactly what you have to offer.

Jingle broke the silence. “Can I ask where you’re headed?”

Sagreda stole a quick glance to each side of the table, unable to brush off her fear that someone might be listening, but all of the tavern’s patrons seemed to be engrossed in their own, more raucous, conversations. “3-adica,” she whispered.

Jingle smiled slightly. “That’s . . . courageous.” He wasn’t mocking her, but his intonation dialed the meaning a notch or two away from merely brave toward foolhardy.

“I’ve had enough,” she said, not daring to add of slavery, in case the sheer potency of the word punched through the din and made one of their fellow drinkers’ ears prick up. “I’d walk over broken glass, if I had to.”

Jingle said, “As a metaphor, that trips nicely off the tongue, but I doubt many people have ever meant it literally.”

“And I don’t believe it will be that hard, literally,” Sagreda replied. “I understand what I’ll be facing—as well as anyone can who hasn’t actually been there.”

“Fair enough,” Jingle conceded. “Though you should also understand that you could make a comfortable life here.” He gestured at Sagreda’s finely cut clothes. “Whatever role you’ve stumbled on, so long as you’re careful, I doubt you’re heading for a knife in the gut, or anything particularly unpleasant. You’re just another minor toff who’s here as part of the scenery, like me.”

“I don’t want to play a role,” Sagreda said emphatically. “However safe, however peripheral.” She held her tongue and resisted the urge to add: least of all in this anatomy. Somehow it had never crossed her mind that her new confidante, who could see right through the whole fictional world around him, wouldn’t also see through her mismatched body and perceive her true sex.

“All right. I’m not going to try to talk you out of anything.” Jingle’s face looked like something from a nineteenth-century pamphlet cataloguing virtues and vices, a caricature crafted to suggest a shrewd, scheming mentality, but his manner undercut the effect completely. “Tell me exactly what it is you need to know.”

 

*   *   *

2

Back in Captain Bluff-Smote’s lodgings, Sagreda sat at her alter ego’s writing desk, poring over the notes Jingle had made for her. The good news was that it looked as if she’d be able to move from Midnight to 3-adica with the same kind of GPU exploit that had brought her all the way from her wakening-world, East. Peyam, the seasoned traveler who’d introduced the exploit to that world, had tutored her and eight of her friends for almost six months in the fine points of the technique. They’d departed together in high spirits, imagining themselves as some kind of band of liberating truth-tellers, but in the end most of the group had taken a different direction through the tangle of linked lists than Sagreda and Mathis, and the two of them had been game-hopping on their own ever since.

She looked up from the desk, listening expectantly, as if the mere thought of Mathis might bring a knock on the door, but all she could hear was the ticking of the clock in the next room. Given Midnight’s demand for a constant influx of new non-player characters to balance its body count, he must have been incarnated somewhere in the game by now. She’d left her address at half a dozen dead drops, using the criteria they’d agreed on in advance: any public bench close to a market; any water pump; the rear, right-most pew in any church. But it was late, and even if Mathis hadn’t yet witnessed a murder or two for himself, he was smart enough not to be out in the portentous fog.

Sagreda returned to her analysis. Every jump required executing a sequence of instructions that would unlink the would-be travelers from their current environment and insert them into a queue that was meant to hold nothing but freshly minted composite personas—free of all narrative memories, and already tagged as appropriate new denizens of the destination world. Given the amount of code it took to run the whole site, not only could you find any machine-language instruction you wanted somewhere in memory, you could find almost all of them as the last instruction in some subroutine or other. When a subroutine was called by ordinary means, the code invoking it pushed an appropriate return address onto the stack, to ensure that the detour would snake back to just after the point where it had begun. But if you could stack the stack with enough phony return addresses, you could send the program pin balling all over the machine, doing your bidding one instruction at a time. It was like forcing a pianist in the midst of playing a piece by Rachmaninoff to tinkle out a few bars of “Where Is My Mind?” without actually changing the score, just by scrawling in a series of arrows weaving back and forth between the desired notes.

Jingle had already done the hardest part: finding the addresses that would furnish each instruction, for code that ran with the particular page mappings that applied to denizens of Midnight on Baker Street. It didn’t take Sagreda long to extract everything she needed from his list. The greatest obstacle was her own poor penmanship; whatever eccentric hobbies the contributors to her persona had possessed, it was clear that none of them had ever had reason to dip a nib in an inkwell.

She blotted the spidery mess and rechecked it twice. There were no actual mistakes, but the figures’ dubious legibility was as disconcerting as a fraying strand on a parachute cord. She started over, sympathizing with the nonexistent captain, who would probably have been thrashed as a child when his thick, clumsy fingers failed him in his own first attempts at transcription.

By midnight, she was satisfied with her efforts. What remained was the challenge of getting this slab of numbers onto the stack. The Graphics Processing Units that rendered the game-worlds for customers and comps alike were all identical, and they all shared the same bug: under the right circumstances, they could be tripped up in a way that made them write a portion of their image buffer onto the CPU’s stack. So the trick was to encode the addresses in the colors of an object, and then arrange to have that object rendered at a suitable scale. Peyam had taught his students to recognize on sight objects with hues from which they could compose any twenty-four-bit set of red, green, and blue components. East, with its sparse, post-apocalyptic landscape of cliffs and caves, hadn’t exactly come with oil paints or color swatches on hand, but over time they’d found ways to patch together the entire palette they’d needed. The SludgeNet scripts that had created Midnight might have taken a rather sepia-toned view of the source novel’s cod-historical setting, but Sagreda had seen hats, scarves, gloves, and ribbons in all manner of garish colors, and once you were working at a scale where you could place different materials side by side within a single pixel, getting the result bit-perfect wasn’t quite as daunting as it first seemed.

She drew up a preliminary list, starting with various items that the captain already possessed. Between his funereal wardrobe, his curtains and bedspreads, his small library, and his collection of lacquered snuffboxes, brown and gray were pretty much taken care of. But to encode the addresses she required, she was going to need all manner of mauves and magentas, leaf-greens and cyans, azures and ocean blues. It would almost have been worth it if the old coot had had a wife, just so Sagreda could surreptitiously snip her way through the woman’s apparel. The captain’s landlady, Mrs. Trotter, was cheerful and solicitous with her widower tenant, but breaking into her room to cut up her clothing could well risk sending the game a signal that this man had been at the Jekyll juice and was craving a chance to perform a few amateur appendectomies.

Sagreda sighed and went to use the chamber pot. She had got past the impulse to giggle or recoil at the sight of her new genitalia—and nothing about the captain’s physique inspired autoerotic experimentation. It was as if she was obliged to spend her time here with a small, docile, misshapen rodent sheltering between her legs, helpfully redirecting the flow of her urine by means that really didn’t bear thinking about. As she covered the pot and hitched up her underwear, she tried to picture the expression on Mathis’s face when he saw what she’d become. But a couple of months without physical intimacy wasn’t going to kill them. Their journey was almost over: in 3-adica, she believed, they’d finally have the power to do, and to be, whatever they wanted.

 

*   *   *

3

Sagreda worked on her palette, visiting milliners and cloth-merchants, developing a line in gruff banter to parry the teasing of the shop assistants. “What’s a gentleman like you needing a scarlet ribbon for?” one young woman demanded, her features poised between perplexity, mortification, and amusement.

“I plan to tie it around the leg of a hound,” Sagreda replied, with a fully Bluff-Smotean air of impatience, irritation, and self-importance.

“An ’ound?” The woman’s expression succeeded in growing even more unsettled.

“As punishment for flagrant promiscuity,” Sagreda explained, deadpan. “The mutt needs shaming, and I will not resile from the task.”

“That’s only fair,” the woman decided. “When it comes to them beasts, nature will have its way, but that don’t mean we have to approve.”

As Sagreda handed over her coins, she scrutinized the woman’s face, hoping that perhaps she was in on the joke. But Jingle had said that only about a tenth of the characters here were game-aware.

Out on the street, as Sagreda paused to let a carriage pass, she felt an unexpected disturbance near her hip and instinctively reached down to explore its source. To her surprise, she found herself with her hand encircling a slender, bony wrist.

The owner of the wrist glared up at her defiantly: a slim, shabbily dressed girl whose age Sagreda refused to guess. Appearances were meaningless; however you picked and mixed from a pool of adult brain maps, the resulting comp could never be a child.

But a child need not always be played by a comp.

“That coin you’ve grabbed was a souvenir,” Sagreda huffed, “given to me by my Bavarian cousin, Frau Mengele!”

The girl flinched and dropped what she’d been holding—though she seemed as baffled by her reaction as an audience member at a hypnotist’s show who’d found herself suddenly clucking like a chicken. An automaton wouldn’t have blinked, and a customer might have grimaced at the oddly contrived reference, but only a comp could be revolted by the association without understanding why.

Sagreda bent down and retrieved the coin. “Don’t you dare lay a finger on me!” the girl whispered. Her hushed tone was probably a wise strategic choice: if she made a scene, the crowd would not be on her side. But she spoke without a trace of fear, as if she were the one with the upper hand.

Sagreda lost whatever resolve she’d had to strike the child for the sake of appearances. Maybe a verbal reprimand would pass muster, if anyone around them was even paying attention.

“Next time, missy, you should ply your trade on someone less acutely conscious of the content of his trousers!” Sagreda blustered. She waited, still gripping the girl’s wrist, hoping for some kind of apology.

“I know what you’re up to,” the girl replied unrepentantly. “So leave me be, or I might just pay a call on the witch-finders.”

Witch-finders? Sagreda supposed she had no right to be surprised by how far Midnight was willing to stretch its anachronisms. “And just what are you planning to tell Constables Scolder and Mully of Bow Street?”

“Every nasty detail of your sorcery,” the girl boasted. “And you can be sure that when they break down your door, they’ll take a very keen interest in your mandala.”

Sagreda released the girl. Whatever she actually knew, the risk of attracting official scrutiny had to be greater than the risk of letting one pickpocket slip away unpunished.

But the girl declined the opportunity to flee. “And I’ll have what you denied me,” she said, glancing meaningfully at Sagreda’s trouser pocket.

Sagreda stared back at her, almost admiring her brazenness, trying to summon up some ornately disdainful Victorian invective with which to respond to this blackmail. But her vocabulary deserted her, and muttering feebly about impudent whelps when her heart wasn’t in it would just make her sound like the nineteenth century equivalent of a rapping grandma.

“Be off with you!” she snapped, making a shooing motion with her giant hands.

The girl scowled, dissatisfied, and she seemed on the verge of escalating her threats, but then she changed her mind. “You should engage me, Mister.”

“Captain,” Sagreda corrected her. “Engage you to do what?”

“Make me your assistant. Seeing as how you’re struggling to complete the thing.”

A carriage drove past, spattering the bottom of the captain’s trousers with horse-shit-speckled mud.

“Have you been following me?” Sagreda demanded.

“I have eyes,” the girl replied coolly. “I seen you in all kinds of fancy shops, making some very odd purchases. If you want the job done before Christmas, you might welcome a pair of nimble hands like mine.”

Sagreda fell silent. Were there colors she needed that she might only be able to obtain by theft? She wasn’t sure. She’d made significant progress, but she was yet to walk into a shop and find every obscure object of her chromatic desires laid out on the shelves and counters.

“I’ll give you a shilling as a retainer,” she decided, reaching into her pocket for an untainted one. “In turn, I expect you to be straight with me, and to keep yourself available.”

The girl inclined her head in agreement.

Sagreda held on to the coin. “What’s your name?”

“Lucy.” The girl stretched out her palm, and Sagreda deposited the shilling.

“How will I find you?” she asked.

“This is my patch you’re on,” Lucy replied, affronted, as if she were some criminal kingpin whose territory Sagreda crossed only on her sufferance. “If you have need of my services, I’ll know it before you know it yourself.”

 

*   *   *

4

Sagreda worked into the night, pinning, stitching, and gluing, painstakingly assembling one more piece of the mosaic. Or mandala, as Lucy had called it. It was an odd choice of word; Sagreda had seen nothing to suggest that Midnight’s kitchen-sink eclecticism encompassed any culture east of the Carpathians. But perhaps one of the previous travelers the girl had seen scavenging for colors had taken her into their confidence and tried to explain the point of the whole exercise. Sagreda had no idea if anyone, anywhere, had ever believed that a mandala could initiate the transmigration of souls; her own vague understanding was that if you were into that kind of thing, you just waited to die and the rest was up to karma. But if stacks, GPUs, and the whole panoply of queue structures that linked the game-worlds together were too much to explain to someone who’d been gaslit into forgetting everything her contributors had known about the twenty-first century, maybe Lucy’s reluctant informant had opted for a Buddhist-flavored riff, aiming for an account that was comprehensible to the denizen of a world steeped in supernatural forces, while avoiding Western occultism with its potentially Satanic associations, in the hope of keeping the witch-finders out of the picture.

Someone tapped at the door. Sagreda covered the mosaic with a tablecloth and approached the entrance hall. It was awfully late for a visit from Mrs. Trotter, and the tap had sounded far too tentative to come from any branch of the constabulary.

When she opened the door, she found an elegantly dressed, dark-haired young man at the threshold, his eyes cast down as if his presence here was somehow shameful.

“I’m sorry to trouble you, sir,” the man said softly, still not meeting Sagreda’s gaze. “But I’m a cousin of your wife, and I need to speak to her as soon as possible about a poorly aunt of ours—”

Sagreda interrupted him. “Mathis?”

He looked up, startled. “How do you . . . did she tell you . . . ?”

“There is no she but me, I’m afraid.” Sagreda tried to smile, but then recalled how the captain’s whiskery visage had appeared when she’d practiced in the mirror. “It looks like that last queue we found was meant to have been pre-filtered by gender.”

Mathis nodded with a kind of punch-drunk stoicism. “Okay. Everything’s temporary. I’m sorry I took so long to find you; I don’t know if the notes all blew away, or what.”

“The ones in the churches shouldn’t have.”

“About that . . .”

“Are you coming in?” Sagreda asked impatiently. They weren’t talking loudly, but who knew what Mrs. Trotter would assume if she saw the captain with a young man visiting at this uncivil hour.

“I’m afraid you’re going to have to invite me,” Mathis explained glumly.

Sagreda took a moment to digest that. “Oh, fuck no.”

“You got the wang, I got the fangs,” Mathis quipped. “That’s what happens when you walk in blind.”

Sagreda said, “Please, make yourself at home in my miserable abode.” She stepped back from the doorway and let him pass, then peered out across the landing to check that no one was watching from the stairs.

Mathis draped himself over the sofa and gazed lethargically into space, focusing on nothing, perhaps in an attempt to avoid having to take in the wallpaper.

“So what exactly are the symptoms?” Sagreda asked. “Apart from a general Byronic ennui.”

“I haven’t risked daylight,” he replied. “But I gather it would be fatal. I do have a reflection. But mostly I’m just very, very tired and very, very hungry.”

“So you haven’t—?”

“Jesus, Sagreda!” Mathis stared at her in horror.

“I meant . . . maybe a dog?” The dogs here were pure automata, it wouldn’t even be animal cruelty.

“I’m not interested in dogs! Mathis retorted irritably, as if that ought to be as obvious to Sagreda as it was to him. But then he caught himself, and walked her through the strictures he was facing. “There are certain sights and odors that make my saliva run, and my . . .” He gestured at his mouth. “I’m assuming that unless I act on those cues, I’m not going to stop feeling weak. A rare roast-beef sandwich doesn’t cut it, and I have no reason to think a corgi or two would hit the spot either.”

Sagreda steeled herself. “Do you want me to fill a cup?”

Mathis took a while to reply. “Are you sure you want to do that?”

“Not especially,” she confessed. “But I don’t want you going into the vampiric equivalent of a diabetic coma.”

“I’d better not watch,” Mathis decided. “Who knows what strings the game will start tugging, if I see an open wound.”

“All right.” Sagreda went into the captain’s bedroom and closed the door. There was a cutthroat razor by the washing bowl, and an empty shaving mug. She took off her jacket and shirt.

The thought that Mathis feared losing control disturbed her. They’d fought for each other, suffered side by side, and risked deletion across three dozen worlds—and the software that lorded over them was far too crude to reach inside them and start imposing beliefs or desires. On their side they had love, and they had reason, while the SludgeNet possessed neither.

But it still had plenty of ways to try to manipulate their behavior. Having woken in the asinine world of East, where sensory immersion lost out more or less instantly to any trace of common sense, they were both immune to seeing-is-believing, and to the wisdom of hoodwinked crowds. But they’d never been subjected to outright torture. If the purple prose in Midnight’s bodice-and-intestine-ripping source had talked about a vampire’s longing for blood being like a white-hot poker in the chest, the SludgeNet would have no trouble bringing those words to life.

The captain’s body was amply proportioned and apparently not at all anemic; when Sagreda had filled the mug, she did not feel the least bit unsteady. “Well done, old stick!” she commended him, binding the wound with a handkerchief. She dressed again completely to conceal any trace of the breach in her skin. The captain, being some flavor of Anglican, wasn’t into religious paraphernalia; there was a King James Bible in his library but no crucifix by the bed.

She covered the mug with a playing card and opened the door. Mathis was still on the sofa; she walked right past him, into the entrance hall, and out the front door. She placed the mug on the landing, near the top of the stairs, then, leaving the door open, went back to the sitting room.

“You didn’t want to watch me,” she said. “And I don’t want to watch you, either.”

Mathis frowned slightly, but he nodded. “I’ll go back to my place when I’m finished.” He walked over to the desk and wrote something. “That’s the address, if you need to find me later. But don’t open the door to me again tonight, whatever I say.”

Sagreda felt the captain’s pulse throbbing around the raw edges of the razor wound. But Mathis was just being cautious; he’d never done this before, he didn’t know what to expect.

“You know I love you?” she said.

Mathis rolled his eyes. “At a pinch, I might go for an Oscar Wilde type, but the whole Colonel Mustard thing . . .” He shuddered.

“You’re an asshole.”

He smiled and walked down the hall. Sagreda followed a couple of steps behind, then when he was out she closed the door quickly—taking care not to slam it and wake Mrs. Trotter—and secured the bolts.

She stood by the door, listening, but the bestial slurping she’d feared never came. She waited, tensed, picturing the door splintering and a yellow-eyed, ravenous demon embracing her to finish what she’d started.

She heard the faint chink of the mug being placed back on the floor, then soft, careful, unhurried footsteps descending the stairs.

 

*   *   *

5

Sagreda needed cobalt blue. Out in the real world—if Peyam’s gloriously discursive lessons on color were to be trusted—the pigment had been used since ancient times in Chinese ceramics, and it had certainly been available to European painters in the nineteenth century. This was London, capital of an empire, mercantile hub of the world. Whatever wasn’t made here, someone would be importing it.

So she traipsed the streets, hunting for a shop that sold artists’ supplies. If the gossip she’d heard in the coffee houses was true, every tubercular poet, living or undead, from Marlowe to Yeats was currently shacked up somewhere in Bloomsbury, rubbing shoulders every night in the Salon Macabre—a dollop of name-dropping no doubt designed to set the hearts of thirteen-year-old Goths aflutter—but no one ever seemed to mention a single painter. To be fair, Sagreda’s own contributors struggled to suggest anyone but Turner; still, someone had to be responsible for all the portraits of viscounts and their horses that lined the walls of the mansions of Belgravia. Unless they just appeared out of thin air.

As she widened her search radius, Sagreda grew nervous. Every game had different rules of containment; if you wandered off into territory that didn’t belong to the core geography that had been mapped out and rendered for a thousand eyes before yours, you might get a gentle nudge guiding you back to terra cognita, or you might just fall off the edge of the world. So far as she knew, the captain was not a named character in the original novel, and no customer of the interactive version had become the least bit invested in his continued existence. If she crossed the invisible line, the easiest solution by far might be to erase her and wake a fresh comp in the same body after a hard night on the town, leaving the new guy to piece his identity together much as Sagreda had, from the contents of his lodgings, and the people he encountered who seemed to know him.

By late afternoon on the third day of her search, she found herself off the paved streets entirely, tramping through muddy ground beside a ramshackle wooden building that smelled like a tannery. She stopped and hunted for the sun, trying to get her bearings, but the sky above was smothered by a still, gray haze, equally bright everywhere she squinted.

There was no one else in sight. She approached the building cautiously; it might just contain cheerful workers, happy to offer directions, but Midnight was proving less concerned with its supply chains than with its brooding atmospherics. If its artworks could come without artists or pigments, its leather need not have graced the body of any cow, and the strange odor might have another source entirely.

Her foot touched something taut buried in the mud, like a swollen fruit or a small balloon; she tried to step back, but the thing burst and a jet of stinking yellow fluid sprayed up from it and struck her in the chest.

A hand tugged at her trouser leg. A small boy was standing beside her. “Come with me!” he whispered urgently.

Sagreda followed him, resisting a motherly impulse to scoop him up into her arms, not least because it would be hard to manage without smearing the poor kid with pus. His legs were about a quarter as long as the captain’s, but it was all she could do to keep up. She glanced backward; something was moving at the entrance to the building, but its shape was hard to discern in the haze. It uttered an inhuman cry; in rage or in pain Sagreda couldn’t tell.

“Where are we going?” she asked the boy.

“They marked you,” he replied. “So we need to be done with it.”

“Marked me for what?” she asked.

“Ha!” He seemed to find the question so funny that it could only have been meant rhetorically.

They hit the cobblestones and weaved through small alleys, picking up the pace, inflaming the captain’s gout. In this of all things, the game wanted realism?

“How far will it follow us?” Sagreda wondered, gasping.

“As far as it takes, if you don’t do the necessary.”

Sagreda had visions of a bonfire for her clothes, and an acid bath for her infected skin.

They came to a water pump.

“Get under, get under!” the boy urged her.

“Do I take—?” She gestured at her vomit-yellow waistcoat.

“No time.”

She took off her coat and maneuvered herself under the spout; the boy clambered up and started pumping. Gobs of sticky fluid separated from the cloth and were carried down the drain, but her waistcoat remained stained in a shade that Peyam had never named, but which her contributors labeled bee excrement. She ran her thumb back and forth across the fabric, turning her chest to meet the flow, and gradually the mark began to fade.

“I think you’re done,” the boy decided, wiping his forehead with his hand. He grimaced reprovingly. “What you want with them creatures anyway?”

“Nothing! I didn’t know they were there!” Sagreda got herself upright. Her clothes were drenched and all her joints were aching, but apparently she’d been luckier than she deserved.

“You lost your way?” The boy’s incredulity shaded into smugness; who exactly was the adult here?

“I was looking for a place to buy oil paints.”

The boy sighed, as if Sagreda had somehow lived down to his expectations. “Lucy said it would come to that.”

This wasn’t a random encounter, then. The queen of the pickpockets had had her tailed by a trusted lieutenant.

“What’s your name?” she asked the boy.

“Sam.”

“So do you know of a shop that sells the materials an artist needs?”

He wiped his nose on his sleeve. “There ain’t such a thing in all of London.”

Sagreda had pretty much reconciled herself to that likelihood. “Have you ever even seen a painting?” she asked glumly. There were a couple of drab watercolors in Mrs. Trotter’s sitting room, but even if Sagreda had dared to steal them, they did not contain anything she needed.

Sam said, “I think you better talk to Lucy.”

 

*   *   *

6

“Maybe I know a house,” Lucy said cagily. “Maybe I’m thick with the scullery maid. But it’s hard to remember. My mind turns feeble when I hear my stomach rumbling.”

Sagreda handed her another shilling. “How many paintings, do you think?” They were sitting on moldy armchairs in an abandoned building with boarded-up windows, surrounded by diminutive bodyguards.

“Two dozen, at least.”

“Any of them with a deep, rich blue? It needs to be deeper than a summer sky, but—”

Lucy scowled. “I can ask the maid about the colors, but who knows what she’ll make of your palaver?”

“Then I need to go in there myself,” Sagreda decided. “It’s no good sending someone else who’ll come back with the wrong thing.”

“Be my guest,” Lucy replied, unfazed. “But we’ll be making our entrance through the basement, and there’ll be a tight corner or two along the way. Perhaps you can look into the possibility of investing in a gentleman’s girdle.”

Sagreda wasn’t sure if this was genuine advice, or just a chance to mock her. “How will we get into the basement?”

“There’s a sewer.”

“Of course there is.”

“Meant to put an end to the Great Stink,” Lucy mused, “but if you ask me it’s brought no end of mischief.”

Sagreda hesitated; she didn’t mind getting covered in literal excrement, but the bullshit she was already mired in was a long way from a fact-checked documentary on the marvels of Victorian engineering. “Does anything live down there?”

Lucy considered the question. “‘Live’ might not be the right word to use. But that shouldn’t bother you, should it?”

“Why not?”

Lucy exchanged a knowing glance with Sam, who’d apparently been shadowing Sagreda for some time. “Begging your pardon, Captain, but I been told quite a bit about your fancy man. From what I hear, you got him nicely tamed, so maybe it’s time you put him to good use.”

 

*   *   *

7

Mathis went in front, holding the lamp, but Lucy and Sagreda stuck close behind him. The ceaseless, arrhythmic percussion of random drips of water all around them made Sagreda tense; if something came skittering hungrily along the tunnel, the sounds it made might easily be camouflaged by this unpredictable plinking.

With a handkerchief over her nose, and her mouth shut tight, the stench of the sewer was eye-watering but not quite disabling. Sagreda hadn’t vomited once as the captain, even when she’d stumbled on a disemboweled woman on her first night in the game, and she trusted his constitution to get her through this merely sensory assault. The two cups of blood she’d given Mathis just after sunset had only made her unsteady for a minute or two, and once she’d imbibed an equal volume of Mrs. Trotter’s strong black tea, she’d felt entirely captainly again.

“Are we close?” she asked Lucy, holding her forearm over her mouth as she spoke, which seemed to do a better job of blocking the outgoing sound than the incoming vapor.

“Pardon me?”

“Are we almost there?” Sagreda retched a little, the price of her impatience.

“You’ll see the drain to the right when we reach it,” was all Lucy could offer. “There’ll be no missing it.”

Sagreda peered into the gloom ahead, wondering if any light from the house might make it through the drain, turning the opening into a welcoming beacon. In fact, she could see a small spot of luminous yellow in the distance, beyond the reach of Mathis’s lamp. But it was not remaining still. For a moment she wondered if it might be a reflection off the surface of the putrid, ankle-deep water, shifting its apparent position because of a disturbance in the flow. But then a second yellow dot appeared, off to the left and a short way behind it, and the motion became much easier to decode. The two lights were attached to two ambulatory bodies of some kind, and those bodies were striding down the tunnel.

She reached forward and touched Mathis’s shoulder. “Do you see that?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Any idea what they are?”

“No one’s handed me a taxonomy for this place,” he replied. “But the general rule seems to be that anything inhuman is likely to mean you harm. So the only question is whether I can fend them off, or pull rank on them somehow.”

As the creatures grew nearer, Sagreda became aware of the sound of their footfalls in the sewer water. In concert, their gaits generated a strange rhythm, in which she thought she could discern an overlapping pair of alternating sloshes and harder strikes. The captain’s chest tightened; Sagreda hoped she wasn’t about to discover that a lifetime of pipe smoking in his back-story had left him with bouts of stress-induced emphysema.

Mathis stopped walking and held the lamp high in front of him. “Who goes there?” he demanded imperiously. When he received no reply, he added: “Know that we will pass, and we will pass unmolested, or it will be the worse for you!”

The creatures continued to advance, but now the lamplight began to reach them, sketching gray outlines for the flesh and bones that held up the yellow orbs. What struck Sagreda immediately was that some of the edges she could discern were unnaturally straight. At first she doubted her eyes, but as the details grew clearer her impressions were confirmed: both figures were one-legged, walking with the aid of long wooden crutches angled across their bodies. Each possessed just a single arm and a single leg, attached to half a torso, on which was perched half a head.

As these walking anatomy lessons came into full view, they squinted angrily at the lamp. Their bodies were unclothed, but their skin was loose and wrinkled to the point where it took some scrutiny to be sure that they were both male. Each had a half-tongue that lolled partway out of its broken jaw and hung drooling over the rough plane along which the dissection had taken place. Their single lungs made sputtering sounds that emerged from the bases of their bisected windpipes; their exposed viscera oozed a little, but there was no real pretense of any functioning circulatory system. Skeletal muscles, lungs, and brains were all being powered by pure magical fiat, untroubled by any need for chemical energy.

“I hope they’re not conscious,” Mathis whispered.

Sagreda refused to entertain the possibility. “What are they meant to be?” she wondered. “A vampire someone tried to kill with a circular saw?”

Lucy stepped forward impatiently. “They’re a grisly sight, I’ll grant you that, but even if they’re stronger than they look, I’ll wager they’re not swift or agile.” Then without another word she bolted straight down the tunnel. At the last moment she veered to the right and passed by one of the half-men—almost certainly within arm’s reach, in principle, but while the creature swiveled and swayed toward her, it couldn’t really drop its crutch and grab her.

Sagreda was encouraged, but still wary. “So they’re not exactly zombie ninjas, but one nip might still infect us with the dividing plague.”

“Is that a thing?” Mathis asked.

“Not that my contributors ever heard—but there’s got to be one original idea in the whole ghastly book.”

Mathis made a larger target than Lucy, and the captain even more so, but the officially adult members of the party plucked up their courage and ran the gauntlet. Sagreda almost hit her head on the roof of the tunnel as she scampered up the side of the tubular floor, but the wheezing half-cadaver that turned arthritically to ogle her didn’t get close. She and Mathis caught up with Lucy, who had been wise enough not to go too far ahead in the dark.

“Good thing we have the Prince of the Night here to protect us,” Lucy chuckled. “What would us poor mortals have done on our own?”

“Don’t get too cocky,” Mathis warned her. “I often find myself wanting a snack around ten.”

Lucy tugged at the neck of her blouse to reveal a string of garlic circling her neck. Mathis said nothing, but he didn’t even flinch; Sagreda wondered if it was possible, even here, to believe that an object could ward off danger when in truth it had no effect at all.

The three of them sloshed ahead through the muck.

“What if there’s no cobalt blue in all of London?” Mathis asked, succumbing to a melancholy that had only seemed to afflict him since he started wearing ruffled shirts.

Sagreda found this scenario unlikely. “In hundreds of paintings, of hundreds of subjects? The SludgeNet will have scooped them up from actual Victorian artworks it found on the web, give or take a few woo-woo-isn’t-this-scary neural-net effects. Cobalt blue fits the period, and it wasn’t all that rare. It’s not like we’re hunting for neptunium in the Stone Age.”

She glanced at Lucy, wondering what the girl had made of the exchange, but it seemed to have passed right over her head. Most, if not all, of her contributors would have heard of neural nets and neptunium, but a vague sense of recognition for a couple of anachronistic terms wasn’t going to bring a consensual memory of the early twenty-first century flooding back. Given her character’s age, it was tempting to ask her if she knew who Justin Bieber was, and see if she denied him three times before the cock crowed, but it would be cruel to wake her to her true nature if they weren’t going to stick around and help her make sense of it.

“There it is,” Lucy announced. The drain from the house they were hoping to burgle was up ahead of them on the right. Mathis swung the lamp around as they approached; the narrow, slanting pipe was half open at the bottom, and Sagreda could see dark stains on the cement. There was a grille at the top, which would normally have blocked their access—but the maid had been bribed to take out the bolts that held it down and replace them with duplicates whose threads had been stripped.

Sagreda threw the woolen blanket she’d brought over the lower surface of the pipe, in the hope that they might enter the house without becoming so filthy that they’d instantly wake every inhabitant with their stink. Lucy clambered up first, leaving her galoshes behind. She raised the doctored grille carefully and placed it to the side, almost silently, then drew herself up onto the floor.

“You’re invited and all,” she called down to Mathis. Sagreda wasn’t sure if this would work; the maid, in turn, had invited Lucy, but that didn’t make either of them the homeowner. Nonetheless, Mathis ascended without apparent difficulty, taking the lamp with him.

Sagreda stood at the base of the pipe, gazing up into the lamplit basement. She’d ignored Lucy’s suggestion of a girdle, but it hadn’t been a gratuitous jibe; this was going to be a tight fit. She stretched her arms in front of her so she could rest on her elbows without adding to her girth, and began crawling awkwardly up the slope.

Halfway to the top, she stopped advancing. She redoubled her effort, but it made no difference; whatever feverish motion she made with her elbows and knees, they didn’t have enough purchase on the blanket to propel her upward.

Mathis appeared at the top of the pipe, crouching, peering down at her. “Hold onto the blanket with your hands,” he whispered. He pushed some of it down to loosen it, giving her a fold she could grip. Then he grabbed the top and started straightening his knees to haul her up.

When her hands rose above the top of the pipe she gestured to Mathis to stop, and she pulled herself up the rest of the way. “Well, that was delightful,” she gasped. She clambered to her feet and inspected herself and her crew; they weren’t exactly fit to present to royalty, but between the blanket and their discarded galoshes they appeared to have succeeded in leaving the most pungent evidence of their journey behind.

Mathis shoved the blanket back down into the sewer and he and Lucy fitted the grille into place, swapping back actual threaded bolts. The plan was to leave by the front door, rather than retracing their steps.

Sagreda turned away from the latrine and took in the rest of the basement. The staircase led up from the middle of the room, but on the opposite side there was a door with a small, barred window: an entrance to another room on the same level.

Mathis picked up the lamp and turned the flame down low as they walked toward the stairs. In the faint light, Sagreda saw something move behind the bars in the other room. There was a clink of metal on stone, and a soft, tortured exhalation.

She took the lamp from Mathis and approached the door. If there was a witness in there, the burglars had already revealed themselves, but she had to know exactly what risk they were facing. She lifted the lamp to the level of the window, and peered inside.

At least a dozen fragments of bodies were chained to the walls and floor of the cell. Some resembled the vertically bisected men they’d met in the sewer; some had been cut along other planes. And some had been stitched together crudely, into hallucinatory Boschian nightmares: composites with two torsos sharing a single pair of legs, or heads attached in place of limbs. Where there were eyes, they turned toward the light, and where there were ribs they began rising and falling, but the attempts these pitiful creatures made to cry out were like the sound of wet cardboard boxes collapsing as they were trod into the ground.

Sagreda retreated, gesturing to the others to continue up the stairs.

When they emerged on the ground floor, Lucy took the lamp and led the way down a long corridor. There were portraits in oil at regular intervals on the wall to their right, some authentically staid, some Gothically deranged, but none of them contained the desired blue.

They reached the drawing room. “Turn up the lamp,” Sagreda whispered. The piano, the cabinets and shelves, the sofas and small tables barely registered on her; they were just unwelcome complications, casting shadows that obscured the real treasures. The walls were covered with paintings: scenes from Greek myths, scenes from the Bible, scenes of clashing armies . . . and scenes of naval battles.

For a second or two she was giddy from a kind of ecstasy tinged with disbelief: after so long, it seemed impossible that she really had found what she needed; it had to be a cruel delusion, because the universe they inhabited was built from nothing else. But the feeling passed, and she strode over to the painting that had caught her eye. The ships were ablaze, but the sea was calm. No gray-green, storm-tossed water here, just a placid ocean of blue.

Sagreda contemplated merely scraping off a few samples, but it seemed wiser to take the whole thing and be sure she had as wide a range of colors as possible, rather than a fragment or two that might turn out, under better light, to have been ill chosen. She unhooked the painting and wrapped it in a cloth.

Then she bowed to their guide. “If you please, Miss Lucy, show us the way out.”

Somewhere in the house, a door slammed heavily. Lucy extinguished the lamp. But the room only remained in perfect blackness for a few seconds before gaslights came on at the far end of the corridor.

Sagreda heard a rustle of clothing—maybe overcoats coming off—then a woman’s voice. “They were so rude to me! I can’t believe it! If I want to be called Lady Godwin, they should call me Lady Godwin!”

A man replied, “It’s a historical fact: she took her husband’s name.”

“Yes, but only because she had no choice! If she’d been vampire aristocracy, do you think she would have buckled to convention like that?”

“Umm, given her politics, do you think she would have chosen to be an aristocrat of any kind?”

“There are socialists in the British House of Lords, aren’t there?” the woman countered.

The man was silent for a moment, then he said, “Can you smell that?”

“Smell what?”

“You really can’t smell it? Maybe your thing’s clogged.”

“What are you talking about?”

The man sighed impatiently. “You know . . . the little canister thing in the front of the helmet, under the goggles. There’s a mesh around it, but I think sometimes the stuff clogs up the holes. Just give it a flick with your finger.”

The two customers went quiet. In the shadows of the drawing room, Lucy caught Sagreda’s eye and gestured to her to move behind a bookcase. Sagreda complied without hesitation, deferring to her accomplice’s experience.

“Okay . . . yeah, I can smell it now,” the woman announced. “That’s foul! Do you think one of our experiments broke out of the basement?”

“Maybe,” the man replied. “But it seems to be coming from down the hall.”

Sagreda heard their footsteps approaching. She tensed, wishing she could see exactly where Mathis was. A couple of ordinary householders would not have posed much of a problem—least of all customers, whom Mathis would have no qualms about dispatching—but she did not like the phrase vampire aristocracy.

“Wait!” the man said. The footsteps stopped, and then he groaned. “Yeah, yeah: sexy Russian babes are desperately seeking broad-minded couples to help fulfill their fantasies. How many times are they going to show me this crap before they realize we’re never going to follow the link?”

“You could go ad-free, if you weren’t so stingy,” the woman chided him.

“Stingy? Five dollars a month is a rip-off!”

“Then stop complaining. It’s your choice.”

“What costs do they actually have?” the man protested. “The books they start from are all public domain, or pirated. The world-building software comes from open-source projects. The brain maps they use for the comps are data from open-access journals. So, I’m meant to fork out five dollars a month just to pay rent on their servers?”

“Well . . . enjoy smickering at your Russian babes, Lord Scrooge, I’m going to find out what’s stinking up the house.”

The woman must have decided to approach on tiptoes, because Sagreda heard nothing but floorboards creaking. From her hiding place she could see neither Mathis nor Lucy, and she felt like a coward for not rushing out to block the doorway with the captain’s ample girth. But the fact remained that the mild-mannered aficionado of kitsch creeping down the corridor, who would not have said boo to any fleshly equivalent of Sagreda if they’d sat next to each other on a bus, had been endowed by the game with the power to rip all of their throats out—and endowed by her own lack of empathy with the power to take off her goggles and sleep soundly afterward.

The woman spoke, from just inside the doorway, calling back to her companion in a kind of stage whisper, “It’s definitely coming from in here!” Maybe her “experiments” were so brain-damaged that they would not have been alerted to her presence by these words. Or maybe she just didn’t give a damn. At five bucks a month, how invested would she be? If things turned out badly, she could still order a pizza.

There was a sound of bodies colliding, and the woman crying out in shock, if not actual pain. Sagreda stepped out into the room to be greeted by the sight of Mathis holding Lady Godwin with her arms pinned from behind, his fangs plunging repeatedly deep into her carotid artery as he filled his mouth with blood then spat it out onto the floor. His victim was strong, and she was struggling hard, but he’d had the advantage of surprise, and whatever their relative age and vampiric prestige, his assault was progressively weakening her.

Sagreda ran to the fireplace and picked up a long metal poker. As she approached, both vampires glared at her furiously, like a pair of brawling cats who’d rather scratch each other’s flesh off than brook any human intervention. But she wasn’t here to try to make peace between house-pets.

She rammed the poker as hard as she could between Godwin’s ribs; the author-turned-unlikely-vivisector screeched and coughed black blood that dribbled down the front of her satin evening gown, then she went limp. Sagreda was sickened; even if her victim would barely feel a tickle in her VR harness, the imagery they were sharing debased them both.

Mathis dropped his dead prey and snatched at Sagreda, as if he was so enraged to have been cheated of the animal pleasure of the fight that he was ready to turn on her as punishment. She stood her ground. “Don’t you fucking touch me!” she bellowed.

“What’s going on?” asked Lord Shelley irritably. Mathis turned to confront him, but this time it was no ambush; the older man grabbed him by the shirtfront and thrust him aside with no concern for conservation of momentum, sending him crashing into a corner of the room without experiencing the least bit of recoil.

As Shelley gazed down in horror at his murdered wife, Sagreda backed away slowly. Reminding this bozo that it was only a game would only get her deleted.

The undead poet raised his eyes to the captain and spread his fanged jaws wide in a howl of grief.

“‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair?’” Sagreda offered sycophantically.

Lucy chose this moment to make a run for the door. Shelley turned and grabbed her thin arm, then bent down and sank his fangs into it, apparently deterred by her garlic necklace from striking in the usual spot. Sagreda leaped forward and punched him in the side of the mouth with all of the captain’s mortal strength; to her amazement, her blow dislodged his jaws from the girl’s flesh. Lucy was bawling with pain and terror; Sagreda kept striking the same spot above Shelley’s chin with her massive right paw, as fast and hard as she could, unsure if it was just her knuckles and finger bones that she could hear cracking and crumbling from the impacts.

Mathis whispered calmly in her ear, “Step aside, my love.”

She complied. Shelley looked up, but he had no time to react. Mathis drove the poker into his chest, all the way through to his spine.

As Shelley slumped to the ground, Lucy fell beside him, looking every bit as lifeless. Mathis took his coat off, tore one sleeve free and wrapped it around the girl’s upper arm as a tourniquet.

“What are you doing?” Sagreda asked. “That’s so tight, you’re . . .” She stifled a sob of revulsion. “Don’t cut it off!”

“I’m not going to,” Mathis promised, “but we need to move fast to get the poison out. And I can’t do it, that would only make it worse.”

Sagreda stared at him. “What?”

“I’ll apply pressure; you have to suck the wound and spit.”

“You’re sure that will work?”

“Just do it, or she’s either going to lose her arm or be turned!”

Sagreda quickly relit the lamp so she could see what she was doing, then she knelt on the floor and set to work. When every drop had been drained or spat onto the carpet, leaving Lucy’s arm corpse-white, Mathis loosened the tourniquet and the flesh became pink, bleeding freely from the puncture wounds above the wrist.

“Let it bleed for a bit, just to flush it out some more,” Mathis insisted.

“How do you know all this?”

“I’m guessing,” he admitted. “I’ve heard things from the other vampires, but I don’t know if I ever got the whole story straight.”

Sagreda sat on the bloody floor and cradled Lucy’s head in her arms. There was no actual poison being traced through some elaborate, fluid-dynamical model of the circulatory system; the game would make a crude assessment of the efficacy of their actions under its fatuous rules and then throw its algorithmic dice.

They had love, and they had reason, but the game could still do whatever it liked.

 

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Copyright © 2018. 3-adica by Greg Egan