What is time?
It’s a question I never asked myself while I was still alive, and now, I suppose time is something that happens to other people. Gainful employment, on the other hand, only happened to me after I’d died.
My colleagues call this place the Wings—we’re the before and the after, enfolding the stage of the world. Here, in my lonely turret on the hill, the sun is always noon overhead. Go seaward, towards the misty waters of Unan, and the sun hovers in eternal dawn. Go worldward, towards the Golden Vale, the realm of Transformation, and the sun dips into the cusp of night. Travelling across the Wings can give the illusion of time passing. Long ago, I found it comforting. Now, it makes me vertiginous.
My hill is small, with bald patches where I forget to remember the grass. On its crown sits the cottage I inherited from my predecessor, and despite my best efforts, the building remains shaped like a large barnacle with an oversized turret on its head, so my dwelling resembles a squat fort sitting on a long-suffering crustacean.
All I know of my predecessor is that she retired, and that her retirement had possibly come as a surprise to her. The only legacy of her presence is a single word scratched under a loose paving on the floor.
I try not to think about it: the only reminder that I wasn’t always here.
In my cavernous turret, a column of glassy green threads—the Flow—streams in my seaward window, and out the worldward arch. Far seaward, where the dreaming of souls fills the sea of Unan, glimmering spray rises from the warm waters, coalescing into liquid threads. My task is to comb and groom each strand until it shines, sleek and supple. Every life runs through my fingers until it tapers to its end, and scatters into the Nimbus above, one day to rain back into the misty sea.
When times are prosperous and uncomplicated, I can comb through weeks in one sitting. But when the world endures upheaval, when doubt and indecision fill its souls, I can spend an unrelenting age combing through the tangles of a single, crucial moment. Today, I’ve resolved a number of tricky knots. Then again, it’s always today.
A thread frays near my hand, someone’s potential path splitting off, the loose tendril already ghosting. I smoothly snip its base, leaving the main thread smooth and unharmed. I hold the snippet over the brazier of entropy beside me, but the ghosting thread twists vibrantly between my fingers. In its smoky light, I see a girl searching for firewood across an arid savannah, dreaming of centrifuges and stars. In this path, she abandons her search for twigs, and races to school. This path that never happens.
I take a frosted violet phial from my pocket and place the ghost thread inside, twisting the stopper gently. The sound of clinking bottles drifts from outside, and I hurriedly tuck the phial into my robes.
At the base of my hill stands a low wooden gate strung with mismatched glass bottles. No fence, just a solitary gate to mark the bounds of my domain. A pale blue contrail streams through my window, solidifying into a smartly dressed man in his late twenties, with light brown hair and spotless teeth.
“Tangles,” nods the man, brushing imaginary dust from his tailored suit.
Tangles isn’t actually my title. My predecessor was known as Reed, but after the Stewards implemented their last round of changes, I became the Flow Optimisation Officer. Naturally, I acquired the nickname Tangles instead.
My guest’s title is Timing, but he calls himself Serendipity. He tunes the tension of the Flow, tightening a thread here, loosening one there, so all things move in harmony. At least, that’s his task.
It’s rumoured that he’s fond of reuniting high school sweethearts, taking a morbid delight in how they squirm to discover that the other has filled out, thinned on top, and led a far less exciting life than the future had promised.
“I like what you’ve done with your hill,” says Serendipity.
“I haven’t done anything to it.”
Serendipity fixes me with birdlike eyes, then smiles brightly.
“My mistake,” he says.
Still smiling, his hand darts towards the Flow and tweaks a thread slightly.
“It was aligned!” I slap his hand away. “Now Winston Kerr’s going to miss his bus.”
I knead gently at the fresh kink, and in the shifting depths of the thread, the single dad stops chasing the huffing red bus, an oversized Hug-A-Planet in his arms. He looks just as Atlas might if he caught public transport.
Serendipity continues to look quietly satisfied.
“On the next bus, he’ll sit next to Doctor Madeline Teng,” he says. “In three days’ time, she’ll resuscitate his daughter Liesel at the pool party she’s about to be invited to.”
“We’re supposed to align, not interfere. Smooth their course, not change it.”
Even so, I can’t suppress the subtle thrill that bleeds through me as Winston’s thread transforms along its new course, and the truncated thread of his daughter suddenly sprouts like a fresh shoot.
“Pity,” says Serendipity, sauntering towards the worldward arch. “What would I be without it?”
He pauses, looking at me with an expression I don’t understand, and then his contrail disappears over the wispy horizon.
My heart no longer beats, my ribs no longer rise and fall, but the little violet phial hums against my chest like an appropriated soul. I’ve made no changes to the cottage itself, just a small alteration to the hill. Only a minor adjustment, virtually plumbing upgrades, not worth mentioning to the Stewards.
I descend the turret stairs, and sweep aside the empty bottles and half-blown glass in my cellar. I kneel on the cool, dark earth and trace a circle on the floor. A ring of flat stones rises from my etching, and the centre falls away into a well. Gathering my robes around me, I leap into the void.
We each have our eccentricities, here in the Wings. Distractions to pass the timeless days. Motion creates mesmerising wreaths of light which drift lazily from her rocky spires. Transformation constructs elaborate headdresses, gruffly complaining that she rarely has a chance to use the owl-headed one these days, ever since polytheism fell out of fashion. I have my bottles. And this place.
My feet touch down softly on the floor, and the ceiling curves into vaulted sandstone far above, rising like the petrified ribs of a long-defeated colossus. Thousands of loculi pock the sandy walls, and cradled within each is a softly glowing bottle. Ghost threads float and coil in every glassy vessel, phantom memories of opportunities past.
I climb the lattice of bittersweet vines, past rustic clusters of red and orange berries. I nest the violet phial in a waiting hollow, and brush my fingertips over its neighbours—tiny orbs of golden glass, long necked decanters of scarlet crystal, undulating blue barber bottles. I let myself drift in their fading dreams: a library rich with golden afternoons; an impassioned speech in a jury room; a crowded seminar hall and a lone, searing question.
These fragments of ‘almost time’ are the relics of choices, like mayflies frozen in amber. They are the split second that stretches forever, the moment that hangs for eternity, intense with all the uncertainty and hope of a decision that cannot be unmade.
All these bottles are filled with choices I never had, brimming with longing and aspiration. My own life had been a shadowplay, brief and stark. But here, amongst these private kingdoms and sugar-glass dreams, I can almost pretend I’m alive again. It’s too late for me to change what I had, but it isn’t too late for Winston, for Liesel, for those whose threads still flow. And I find my thoughts turning towards reconstituted mayflies.
I linger over a conical green inkpot: a young woman with a runner’s build sits beside a dark-eyed man. At their feet is a pond rippling with overfed, geriatric ducks. She reaches over and plucks a leaf from his hair, the moment of warmth flowing into a timeline that never was. The essence of the moment is all but gone, only the almost-time remains.
In the brilliant daylight of my turret, I grip the dark green inkpot, strange creatures stirring in the silt of my thoughts. I gently draw a single strand from the Flow, and pour the ghost thread into the glittering skein.
Name: Evea Dorin
Occupation: Kendo instructor
Evea Dorin was making a cup of ginger tea when the phone rang, and a voice she hadn’t heard in two years spoke seven words, then hung up.
In the busy heave and sigh of Evea’s life, she would normally have dismissed the message as one of Jackson’s odd turns, and made a mental note to visit him the following day, despite their estrangement. However, an odd twinge shivered through her—a half-remembered day in the park.
It took three seconds for the unease in her gut to congeal, and by the time her housemate came to check on the kettle, Evea was already four blocks away.
I’m sorry. I love you. Take care.
Jackson’s words looped in Evea’s mind, ending in a dial tone.
Let me be wrong, she thought. Please let me be wrong.
The words pounded with every step. Her days on the high school track team were imprinted into her muscles, and she sprinted past the peak hour traffic.
Jackson’s fibro house peered silently from the corner, and the knot in Evea’s stomach tightened as she reached for one last burst of speed. She shoulder charged the glass patio door and swung into the darkened sunroom, crash tackling Jackson just as the pistol fired.
The skylight shattered, and the pair lay breathless on the parquetry, dried leaves drifting down like orange stars.
There’s a peculiar clarity to the silence, as though a background hum I’ve never noticed has disappeared. Bottles clink outside, and I hurriedly throw the empty inkpot into the brazier, where it ceases to exist.
A wintery blue contrail materialises into a pale woman—no, a girl—with limp auburn hair. I don’t recognise her, and apprehension grips me.
“Hello,” says the girl. “I’m Timing.”
“There’s already a Timing,” I say.
“He retired today,” says the girl. “Transformation instructed me to watch the nexus of the Flow. She said I’d understand what I needed to do.”
I glance nervously at the brazier, and the girl follows my gaze. I quickly turn back towards the threads streaming between us. The girl, Timing, is perhaps sixteen, and has the look of someone newly passed through the Shallows—a little unsure of where she is, who she is, certain only of her title and her task.
She stares into the glowing heart of the Flow, and I busy myself combing away the tangles that have formed. Her expression doesn’t change, but tears trail slowly down her face.
“It becomes easier,” I say, patting her on the shoulder, as I’ve seen people do in the Flow.
The Shallows wash away our regrets and affections, the details of the life we left behind. We can’t remember how we died, or who we left behind. But still, this is not an Afterlife, only an After.
Timing touches her cheeks, and seems vaguely surprised to find them wet.
“I’m not upset,” she says. “I just feel a little odd.”
I offer her a handkerchief, but I only know what handkerchiefs look like, and from Timing’s expression as she wipes her eyes, I suspect mine is somehow deficient. She returns the stiff square to me, and peers at my face. I pull my hood further down.
“Were you always so amorphous?” says Timing politely. “Or have you forgotten what you look like?”
I’ve forgotten much of my mortal life, but there’s little enough to remember. Always hunger, always darkness, always running. My tribe was savaged when I was too young to comprehend what that meant, and every village I came upon chased me away with stones and fire. When Transformation finally appeared to me, though that was not her name then, she made me an offer. A place with no pain and no hunger. A place where there would never be darkness.
Timing reaches into my hood, and before I can pull away, a tingle burns across my skin and deep into my bones. I stumble against a wall, and raise a hand to my mouth. There are lips now, a straight nose, a deep brow.
Timing parts her hands, and a mirror appears between them. A young man stares back at me: ragged brown hair and startled hazel eyes.
“How did you do that?” I croak.
“I’m Timing,” is all she says.
She looks into the Flow again, with brighter, clearer eyes.
“Where are our threads?” she asks.
“We don’t have them.”
She contemplates this, then vanishes in a blue mist.
It’s been a hundred lifetimes since I last ventured from my hill, but Serendipity’s last words crawl up my spine and fester in my brain. I gather my gnarled staff, a circular travelling cloak, and a rose-coloured flask inlaid with a silver window.
“Going somewhere?” a voice drawls behind me.
A thunder-grey vapour claps into the form of a tall, bronzed woman, and the bottles at my gate clink in belated apology. Transformation seldom visits, and her presence is still enough to make me feel acutely mortal again. She’s wearing a deerskin tunic today, and a crown of quetzal feathers to hide her unruly brown hair.
“I’m going to visit Luan,” I say. It’s close enough to the truth to keep my voice from shaking.
Transformation’s gaze slinks to the pulsing Flow, and her finger traces along a glittering line.
“I thought Jackson’s thread finished today,” she says.
“Friendships are an unpredictable force.”
Her eyes narrow. A willow rod materialises in her hand, the tip touches my cheek, then flicks back my cowl.
“What happened to your face?”
Her hawk eyes probe my entrails, and I try to wish away the sweat on my back.
“I think this is how it’s supposed to look.”
Her gaze is disapproving, as though faces are a nuisance, and I wonder if she bothers to have one when she’s wearing her full-faced helms.
“You can’t get to Luan’s,” says Transformation.
“I can walk,” I say stiffly.
Transformation looks faintly disgusted. Her hand clamps onto my arm, and we twist into the aether.
I’m kneeling on wet sand the colour of sunrise. My vision slurs, and I rise unsteadily. Before me is a shallow bay that touches the sky, beyond which lies the Sea of Unan. The sun is barely a glow on the horizon, and I can’t help but think how the beginning and the end look so much alike.
Overhead, a watery aurora streams worldward, forming the threads that will eventually join the Flow. At my feet, foamy waves lap at the sand, and I’m careful not to let the water touch me.
“What’s so urgent you had to leave your little hill?” says Transformation. She’s standing casually on the beach, watching me with the gaze of an apex predator.
“Brazier maintenance,” I say.
Transformation inspects my words, and doesn’t seem entirely satisfied.
“I’ll make my own way back,” I continue, and begin walking towards Luan’s shack. I slow after a few steps, and turn back to Transformation. “Did you see Serendipity, before he…retired?”
She’s still for a moment.
“I see everyone.”
Transformation turns her face towards the sea, and with a snap, she vanishes in a comet tail across the sky.
They say Luan is as old as the Wings, far older than the Stewards, who dare not change his name. He disposes of forgotten things. Trinkets, memories, empires. They’re all dropped with kindness into the wicker basket at his elbow, from which even the Nimbus can’t recall them.
His shack is a giant crab shell, half sunken on the beach, bleached white in the eternal sunrise. Colourful paper flowers hang in the windows, stirring in the breath of the sea.
“The last time you were here, you were wading from the Shallows,” says Luan.
He takes the form of a man in his sixties, wearing a long tunic of unbleached cotton, and sandals woven from reeds. No one knows when he died—or if he died—and no one dares to ask. He’s the kind of man who likes to answer a question with a question, and his questions have claws.
“Please tell me about my predecessor,” I say.
At the sink, Luan holds a tall earthenware teapot beneath a palm-sized cloud, and gently prods it to fill the pot.
“Why did you come here, to the Wings?” says Luan.
I stare at my feet, pale and bare. The blood and the darkness seem so far away, but never quite gone.
“I wasn’t ready.”
Luan moves towards a large cockle shell on the benchtop, filled with soil that smells like rain. From its depths, a tiny fern is unfolding, and he tenderly pours from the teapot. Luan’s shack is filled with conches and clams, all cradling liverworts, delicate grasses, and pine seedlings.
“Are you ready now?” says Luan.
I tense, the rose flask pressing cold against my hip. I shake my head, not trusting my voice.
“Your predecessor presided over the last dark age,” says Luan, “when ignorance and confusion reigned over compassion and reason. Threads broke where they should have frayed. Your predecessor lost her focus.”
I think of the word carved into my cottage floor, and I wonder whether losing focus had been her transgression. Or whether the transgression had come after.
“Go home,” says Luan, watering a rotund cactus.
I bow, and pause at the door. I can remember the sound of my heart, and for the briefest moment, the silence aches.
“Did she put up a fight?” I say.
The teapot is still.
“Why would she fight?”
Luan’s question gives me my answer. Triumph and loss belong in the world—there’s no place in the Wings for desire or conflict or pity. Perhaps, in the end, my predecessor realised that. And yet, my own answer burned in my throat.
Why would she fight? Because even here, there are things worth fighting for.
My pace is steady as I leave the shack, breaking into a run only when I reach the cover of the weathered basalt on the shoreline. I lower the rose flask by a cord into the pristine waters, and quickly wrap the stoppered bottle in layers of my travelling cloak.
I’ve never been able to contrail, but I make a concerted effort now. I blurt into smoke every few hundred metres, then back into corporeal form. I pass the windswept gorges where Motion makes her home, and continue past the ice-capped peaks of Insight. I scud by the jungle citadels of Fortune, and the golden towers of Misfortune.
I finally reach the sanctuary of my noonday hill, and drop my damp cloak into the hungry brazier. I hold the rose flask up to the light—there isn’t much, but it’ll have to be enough. It’ll all come down to the—
Bottles clink, and Timing is sitting on the stone sill beside me. I freeze, the cold flask resting in my palm.
“I brought you a present,” says Timing.
She continues to sit on the sunny windowsill, looking at me with pleasant expectation.
“Uh, thank you…”
I see no evidence of a gift, but feel it’d be impolite to question it. She smiles, and I wonder, not uncharitably, where Transformation found this one.
“I thought you should have it,” says Timing. “Just in case.”
A chill prickles up my spine, and Timing vanishes in a hush of blue, glancing ever so briefly at the bottle in my hand.
A pale amber wine bottle, a hexagonal pickle jar, a peacock-blue perfume bottle inlaid with pearl. I load up my arms and fill the turret with my subterranean treasures. Glowing bottles cover the floor from wall to wall, coloured glass in every shape and size, beneath the twisting Flow.
I select a slender phial of champagne-coloured glass, and gently pour an hour into a glittering thread.
Name: Benson Senkai
They were alive.
Benson peered through the wire lid of a cage labelled Team LV223 and savoured the moment. His instincts had been right, the vaccine had only needed minor adjustments. They were one step closer to clinical trials, and it was a huge step.
“They’re shutting us down, Senkai.”
Benson turned to see his colleague, Quesar, standing in the doorway. Her dark braid looked frizzier than usual, and she wore her lab coat like a gangster Mac.
“Look! Team LV223—” began Benson.
“It’s not a profitable field.”
Benson refused to let the news sink in. Schendruk Pharmaceuticals had only taken over their facility last week, but already, a third of the staff were gone.
“Antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis is one of the leading causes of death—”
“In developing countries,” said Quesar. “Like I said.”
Benson gripped the sides of the plastic cage, as though he could draw strength from the snoozing white rodents inside.
“The vaccine didn’t just work,” said Benson, “Team LV223 were already infect—”
“Stop calling them that,” snapped Quesar. “You know why the other researchers don’t take you seriously?”
She held up a squeaky toy.
“Pet toys, micro-green salads, rat runs—” Quesar gestured at the colourful lab.
“Sedentary, overfed rats can skew the results—” said Benson.
“All the little rat funerals?”
“I just think their sacrifice deserves a little more respect. Quesar, if we can modify the vaccine to be effective in humans—”
“Senkai, it’s over.” Quesar rubbed her temples, shoulders sagging. “Security’s clearing us out in half an hour. Maybe you should think about another career track. Look at that Kendo instructor turned mental-health advocate whose online talks you keep forcing us to watch.”
Benson was silent.
“I’ll see if I can get you a spot at Vati-Tech,” said Quesar. She sighed heavily. “They’re trying to develop a vaccine for homosexuality.”
Benson closed his eyes, and heard the lab door swing shut. He resisted the urge to grab a flask of radioactive goo from his secret inventory, which he kept in the event that he someday found a way to give himself super powers.
Instead, he stared dully at the computer screen. Part of him realised that Quesar was right, Schendruk wouldn’t waste money on human trials. It was over. But an old memory stirred, of how he’d once dreamed of studying law. Scenes from 12 Angry Men and 8 had filled him with the conviction that a single voice could change the course of nations.
Benson glanced at the clock. Twenty-five minutes. Not nearly enough, but he’d take what he could get. He moved methodically between the computers, the crowded benches, and the vaccine refrigeration unit. Time seemed to stretch oddly into the longest twenty-five minutes of his life, but by the time the boots reached his door, Benson had only one thing left to do.
The doors swung open, and Benson raised the aerosol chamber to his face, hoping he’d calculated the dosage correctly.
“Kanpai,” said Benson, and inhaled.
Two minutes. Three hours. A day. Bottle after bottle tips gently into its respective thread. The Flow shivers and I swiftly smooth its course. The light at the window flickers, and I risk a glance outside. The sun blinks.
I place the rose flask on the windowsill, and for the first time since my shadow touched the Wings, I draw a breath. Vapour rises slowly from the bottle, trailing outside to form a cloudy perimeter, then a thin shell of fog around my hill. It won’t hold, but every moment counts.
Beyond the fragile fog, contrails are circling now. Dark shadows wheel furiously outside the dome, but don’t pass through. I continue to empty the phials and flasks, glittering almost-moments streaming into the Flow, becoming moments once more, infused with the spirit of barely remembered days.
At the threshold of my gate, a dark grey contrail crackles into Transformation, with Timing beside her. Timing reaches towards the wispy vapour, and Transformation catches her wrist.
“You can only pass through the Shallows once,” says Transformation.
Timing looks up at the window, and smiles to see me. For a moment, I almost regret the path I’ve chosen. All around the patchy grass, I can see my colleagues standing darkly: Motion, her windswept hair forming a midnight halo around her; Misfortune with his iridescent scales and serpentine shadow.
Bottles clink wistfully, and a white cloud by the gate transmutes into Luan. He lays a hand on Transformation’s shoulder, and then steps through the fog. His skin shivers and crackles, his whole body threatening to scatter into mist. For a moment, it seems that something else stands in his place—something of water and light, something that never remembers being human.
Luan labours to take another step, then another, solidifying back into his usual form as he inexorably approaches my cottage.
I know this is how it must end. Had known, perhaps, since Serendipity’s words had sliced deep into the hollow place I longed to fill.
One more, just one more.
I grasp a blood-red libation bottle full of golden afternoons, and one minute is all I have left to give.
Name: Rutger Stone
Occupation: CEO of Jupiter Exploration
Rutger Stone sat gargoyle-like in the auditorium, bored to petrification. The speeches at these events were interminable, but it was less than a minute until they broke for Beluga and Romanée-Conti. He distracted himself with fiscal projections—he was trying to install decent renewable energy on his Pacific island, since his nemesis, Kikuyo from Ingot Resources, had just added a new photosynthesis-fusion array to her Arctic villa.
Rutger ignored the petite blonde squeezing noisily into the seat beside him. Her luggage was caked with orange dust, apparently overlooked in sloppy quarantine procedures. Old luggage tags swung from its handle, with codes like NBO, KNJ, and the name L. Kerr.
“Damn, did I miss the entire thing?” muttered the young woman.
Rutger considered pretending that he hadn’t heard her, but doing so would doubtlessly result in the footage being uploaded onto social media sites within seven seconds, tagged CEO of Evil Mining Corp shuns beloved spiritual leader/terminally ill Nobel Laureate/alien ambassador.
“I believe there’s seventeen seconds left,” said Rutger.
“I didn’t think tuberculosis breakthroughs would interest someone like you,” said Kerr amiably.
“Apparently, some of our workforce in more remote locations find it bothersome,” said Rutger dryly.
He’d really only come to hear Raki Adedayo’s afternoon presentation. According to Rutger’s dossier, Adedayo had defied an arranged marriage at age twelve, left behind her drought-stricken province to study astrophysics at Caltech, and the doctoral student now had some rather curious ideas regarding faster than light travel.
However, the passing seconds stretched vindictively, and the current presenter’s words seemed to blur into utter incoherence. They were probably testing an experimental PA system.
The blonde woman kept glancing at him, and Rutger ignored this. He was exceptionally disciplined at ignoring things. As a child, he’d walked past a grand old library on his way home from school each day, and spent glorious afternoons there with his best friend, Tulip. The world had seemed giddy and immense, brimming with visionaries and heroes. However, when he’d turned eleven, his father had taken sick, and Rutger had scrounged an off-the-books job running errands at the local open cut mine. He’d still walked past that library every day, but to him, it may as well not have existed.
Rutger blinked slowly at the memory, and found himself glancing at the woman beside him again. She took the flicker of eye contact as an invitation to conversation.
“Not to pry,” said Kerr, “but when was the last time you had that mole checked?”
“I have a skin examination every twelve months.”
Kerr’s fingers brushed past his ear, stopping an inch into his hairline. She flicked a dermatoscope from her pocket and leaned in.
“I think you should visit again.” She gave him a polite smile, and drew back.
Rutger grabbed her callused hand almost without realising it, staring at the words tattooed on her wrist.
As much as you can.
As many as you can.
As long as you can.
“Odd mantra for a dermatologist,” said Rutger.
“Oncologist,” said Kerr. “Emergency obstetrician. Stopgap school teacher when the weather’s fine. Come visit me in Jamaame sometime.”
The crowd shuffled to its feet, and the clatter of silverware drifted from the adjoining conference room.
“I feel like some fresh air,” said Rutger. “Care for a walk?”
Downstairs, the cottage door creaks open. Only a few bottles remain stoppered, suspended in their slumber, but there isn’t time to find their threads. Luan is right, there’s no point in fighting. Something pale catches my eye in the Flow, and I reach over, thinking that a piece of lint must have tumbled in.
I pull out a silver blue thread, translucent, as though not yet realised. I gaze into its heart, and see myself staring back.
Footsteps are climbing the corkscrew staircase, and I grab the remaining bottles, pouring them into the hazy silver thread. There’s no time to find their threads, but at least their memories, their passions won’t be lost. The last bottle splinters in my palm, and around me, every bottle crumbles into sand.
“Those lives don’t belong to you,” says Luan.
White sand drains through my fingers. And they’re finally gone, the days that almost were.
“All they needed was a little more time,” I say.
Luan shakes his head. “I’m sorry for the short, desolate life you led, but you made your choices. It’s not your place to make theirs.”
“Our place is to help,” I say with feeling. “I comb their threads to make them strong, to ease their journey. All I did was remind them of what they once loved. This woman,” I separate a thread, “she spends a cumulative twenty years of her life eating fruit pies and having afternoon naps. But here, at this point, she thinks about taking a sewing course. If she does, she becomes a remarkable mixed-media artist and inspires a generation of guerrilla embroiderers.”
“Yes,” says Luan. “And if she does, she misses a call from her brother after his motorcycle accident, and never has a chance to say goodbye.”
The thread drifts from my finger, and Luan continues.
“Their lives are meaningful because of the choices they make. Whether that choice is to refuse to sit at the back of a bus, or to eat two thousand and forty-seven pies in their lifetime. They might not always make the best, the most heroic, or the kindest choices, but it’s not your world anymore.”
The sunlight feels cold on my skin, and I realise that I’m tired. Tired of looking in on a world I can’t touch, collecting memories that aren’t mine. All I wanted…
I can feel myself dissolving slowly at the seams. There’s only so much one can bear before this place, this endless, aimless day becomes…enough.
Luan rests a hand on my shoulder.
“Time to retire,” he says.
I’m kneeling on a plain of tiny white shells, so bright they burn like snow. The Stewards stand in wordless court, towering and faceless; like obelisks they encircle me. A sun hangs behind each one, their shadow-cage crossing over me.
Transformation stands before me. Today, light drifts from her, and a circlet of ferns rests upon her head. I raise my eyes to her, and wonder that I ever felt afraid.
“I know you have to follow your conscience,” I say, “as I followed mine.”
Transformation shakes her head, and her voice is soft.
“It was never a question of conscience, but of choice. The lives you altered were done so without their consent, without their knowledge, to satisfy your will, not theirs. Choices are only yours to make when the consequences are yours to suffer. Only mortals have the right to exert their will on the mortal world. Do you understand?”
There’s a sadness in her eyes, and I find myself wishing that I’d visited Transformation more often, in her lonely vale of autumn light. My day is drawing to its close, and in the end, I am ready. The Stewards hum in unison, and the suns begin to darken. Transformation leans towards me.
“Thank you,” I say softly, and Transformation hesitates. “A long time ago, you made me a promise. A place with no darkness. Thank you, Iru, for giving me a little longer in the sun.”
They say there was a time, in her younger days, when Transformation visited the mortal world to watch their combustion sun rise and set. But they say a great many things about Transformation.
The shadows deepen around me, and Transformation cups my face in her hands, as she did once, long ago. She leans in so that only I can hear her.
“Friendships are an unpredictable force,” she says, and kisses my forehead before the suns snuff out.
I’m standing on a sticky landing, a suitcase in my arms. The wooden door before me opens, as though I’ve knocked, and a dark-haired man in his thirties smiles broadly.
“New recruit’s here,” says the man. “Ceren, make yourself decent.”
A dapper young man glides from the parlour, dressed as though he’s raided the most exclusive op shops in the city.
“I…am always decent,” says Ceren, with a flourish that suggests he’s about to send a deck of cards flying from his sleeve. “Have we met?”
I shake my head. The interior of the share house is surprisingly clean and airy, inhabited by numerous piles of books and solemn potted palms.
“I’m Jackson,” says the dark-haired man. “Secretary of the Mushin Foundation. This is Ceren Darwinshaw, he breaks up couples.”
“I’m a relationship counsellor,” says Ceren primly. “I help vulnerable people leave unhealthy relationships.”
“He’s crazier than I ever—” begins Jackson.
The front door slams open, and an athletic woman wearing an olive cami and pressed trousers bursts into the room.
“We got the grant!” she grins, and exchanges a jubilant high five with Jackson.
“I thought Stone was busy eradicating tuberculosis,” says Ceren.
“I guess he realised mental health networks are desperately underfunded,” shrugs the woman. She notices my presence, and extends a hand. “I’m Evea. You are…?”
Through the window on my left, stars are appearing above the neon skyline. In my chest, a heartbeat thumps in quiet anticipation.
“Ernest Babar.” I shake Evea’s hand warmly.
“‘Babar’ like the elephant?” says Jackson.
Evea ignores him.
“Welcome to the madhouse,” she says. “So, why are you here?”
I close my eyes for a moment, and I can remember rocketships and heaving nets, chanting crowds and silent schoolrooms. Visions fleet through my mind, and a whisper lingers in my ear. I smile at my new colleagues.
“I’m here to help.”