SFX used in the host spot of this episode can be found here:
A Place to Grow
By A. T. Greenblatt
Lillian was wearing one of her uncles’ old suits again. Her family always wore suits when they were going to tear down a world.
Trouble was that this world, unlike the dozens before it, had started to feel like home.
You don’t know that for sure, Lillian reminded herself as she strode through her dying garden, fists clenched at her side. You never had a home.
Trouble was, her uncles got bored of the worlds they built so quickly. So now the last of her daisies, tulips, and lilies surrounded her like sickly, wilting walls, praying for one last glimpse of sunlight before they died.
A useless prayer. Her uncles had dismantled the sun two days ago.
I’m not going to let them gut this world and put it on a shelf, Lillian thought as she weaved her way through the garden. Not this time. She didn’t bother picking up the hems of her pants dragging through the dirt or tucking in her arms so that her baggy sleeves didn’t catch on the yellowing leaves. She let her garden cling to her like her uncles’ hopes and plans that one day she would be like them and build worlds of her own.
Her uncles’ suits never had fit her well.
Lillian stole a quick glance back at the house in the middle of her sprawling garden. With a bit of luck, Uncle Simon and Uncle Arthur wouldn’t notice that she wasn’t packing. By now, they should be so consumed with their own preparations, they would forget to look out the window. They would miss her oversized clothes and her telltale face and hands, which even from a distance looked like a quilt made from many different skins. They wouldn’t see her walking away.
And if they did . . . well, they’d be furious. They’d tell her she was wasting her time. Her energy. Her abilities, on a flawed, doomed world.
Which might be true. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t going to try.
You need to understand the risks first, she reminded herself.
The Wall. She needed to see the Wall, or rather, what was beyond it now. She needed to understand what it was like to be without a world.
Her uncles’ town surrounded the house and garden in a perfect circle. So did the Wall, except that surrounded the town. The flaws in this world became more visible the farther she walked. There were deep cracks in the road, air temperature fluctuations every few steps, places where the water main broke so frequently that the glass foundation gleamed through the patches of eroded earth. A few townies stood on their lantern-lit porches from the homes that lined the road, raising a hand as she walked by. Worry and hope mixed in their expressions. Her uncles had promised to build everyone a new, better home, but right now, the world was being dismantled around them and no one knew what would come next.
The vast, stone Wall seemed to rise up out of the pile of rubbish at its base, collected there as if all the things that weren’t needed in the next world had just rolled downhill and settled at the boundary of this one. Old furniture, dented pots, broken light bulbs. The ladder was still there, though, braced against the lip of the Wall, where the stonework met the glass. So Lillian placed a patchwork hand on a rung and started climbing.
This wasn’t her first time up. Four days ago, when she’d pressed her hands against the smooth glass barrier of this world, she’d seen wildflowers. Endless fields of color rushing out to meet the horizon.
It wasn’t real, of course, the flowers beyond the Wall. Unlike the ones in her garden, this was just an illusion. Something Uncle Arthur had created to keep everyone sane.
For good reason, Lillian realized now as she bit back a scream. Because now . . . now beyond the Wall there was nothing. Only a vast, terrible, consuming emptiness. It was as if she was falling, failing, losing, and she would never find herself again.
Her knees shook, banging against the ladder’s rungs, and she squeezed her eyes shut. They were right. Her uncles, the townies. It was better to have a world, despite the flaws, despite her uncles tearing it down and rebuilding it every year or so, than to face that infinite nothingness.
If you make a mistake, this is where everyone will end up, she thought. Completely lost.
She knew what the rational decision was. She understood that letting this world go was the safer choice.
There was a small, insistent part of her that wouldn’t let her give up so easily. The tiny part of her that had put down roots outside of her uncles’ laboratories and workshops. She’d poured hours into learning how to make things grow, how to keep them alive, and she had succeeded. She could spend an entire day in her garden with Marci and Gil, weeding, watering, laughing and it never felt like wasted time.
Before this world, she didn’t think it was possible for someone like her to feel at home. An orphaned world maker who couldn’t even remember the world she came from. Not until she discovered she could coax something in her uncles’ rigid creations to grow. To change.
She couldn’t let them take that away.
She’d been lingering in the garden again. Arthur could smell the honeysuckles on her, dying though they might be.
“We could live our lives within glass bottles and it would be the largest place we’d ever know,” Arthur muttered to himself, though he made sure to be just loud enough for Lillian to hear.
“Except we do live in a glass bottle, Uncle.”
Her voice carried, reverberating off the shelves of beakers, delicate instruments, and boxes of things that didn’t have names. Arthur turned and saw his niece in the doorway, her mismatched hands tightening, her scarred and bricolage face full of impending stubbornness.
“You should be packing,” he said as he corked the beaker he was holding. “Not puttering around in that ridiculous garden.”
“You didn’t think it was ridiculous when we first made this world.”
“That was before I realized how unpredictable and stubborn flowers are,” he said. Like nieces, he added silently. “Why are you here?”
“I saw what’s really beyond the Wall today.”
Arthur nearly dropped the beaker he was holding. Of course, he’d intended to show her what the illusion was hiding, though it wasn’t something you showed too soon. Except the woman standing in the doorway wasn’t a patchwork child anymore. She’d grown into all her skins.
He could see that she understood now. There was fear on her face, the fear of what she could lose.
“Good,” he replied, and hesitated. In some ways, he was proud of her initiative. But what had she thought of the emptiness beyond the Wall? In that terrible void, had she found the hunger to create, to defy, like he and Simon and her mother had done?
Arthur opened his mouth to ask, but the words caught. He couldn’t quite meet her eyes. She couldn’t quite meet his. Their silent questions hung in the space between them.
“Where are we going this time, Uncle?”
This wasn’t the right question. But Arthur was grateful. He knew how to talk about worlds.
“Mountains. With real snow. Come see.”
He beckoned Lillian towards the center of the laboratory, where resting on a table between the shelves and benches, a large glass bottle glowed. Nestled within its body, the hazy mountains looked conquerable. Of course, they weren’t really miniatures, just like the world in the bottle wasn’t really on the table. It was an illusion, a trick of perspective. Even the grandest mountains could appear as small as your thumb from the right distance. It was just a matter of getting the math right.
“It always seems so far away, when we’re looking at them from the outside,” she said, peering at the bottle.
“I know,” he replied, smiling. Arthur could hear the new world calling him. This was the home they’d been searching for. This time he was certain. “We always did love the snow as children.”
But Lillian wasn’t listening. Her gaze had drifted to the shelf behind him. The one full of large, dusty bottles. Remnants of all the worlds he and Simon had made before this one. Flaws, flaws, and more flaws. And there was an empty space on it, ready for this world of flowers.
“The next world will be perfect,” he said, raising his voice. “It’ll be the last one we make.”
“Except you said that about this world.”
“And the one before that.”
He glared at her and she returned the expression, neither of them willing to lower their gaze, their stance.
How could he explain that something was missing here? His careful calculations for happiness, once again, hadn’t added up.
Arthur scowled and turned away from his stubborn niece. “Well, if you’re going to stand there, you might as well be useful.”
“Why? What are you packing?”
A small, sharp frown appeared between her eyebrows, but wordlessly, she rolled up her sleeves and Arthur relaxed. She was still his lab assistant, first and foremost.
Together they measured, stirred, distilled, and measured again, their hands working in parallel to refit a handheld lamp. With infinite care, Arthur lit the wick, and in an instant, the flame was burning as bright as a beacon. Seconds later, the first star arrived with a clink.
“It’s working. Excellent,” Arthur said, pleased.
Together, they wandered out to the balcony, lantern in hand. Arthur studied the sky, noting the frequency of arriving stars. He began to explain the art of the nightscape, but after a minute or so, he realized Lillian wasn’t watching the sky. She was staring at her garden instead.
Arthur sighed. She’d done good work with the flowers and plants, making them thrive after he and Simon had given up on them. But the garden wasn’t the same as the one he, Simon, and Aster had in the world they once called home, before . . . well, before. Besides, it was Aster, Lillian’s mother, who’d loved that garden. Without her, this place felt like a bitter mockery of the home they had lost.
“Your mother was excellent with growing things too.”
“I know,” she replied. “Uncle Simon told me,” she added in reply to his surprised expression. “I think we can fix the flaws here. I have some ideas.”
Arthur scowled. Absurd . . . the flaws ran too deeply and it wasn’t worth the effort. How could she not see that this world was a cheap imitation of what it was supposed to be?
But then, Arthur saw her expression and he understood. She’d fallen in love with this world. She still hadn’t learned how the things you love most can be snatched away on a whim.
“You need to go,” he whispered.
Because everything’s too fragile, too fleeting.
“Because the laboratory always moves first,” Arthur snapped. He turned his back on the garden and hurried towards the balcony doors. “And I’m going to move it now. Get out.”
Damn it, damn it, damn it. Really, she shouldn’t have been surprised that Arthur wouldn’t change his mind. She should’ve known. Well, she had known . . .
From the pocket of her secondhand suit, Lillian pulled out two large, beautiful bottles. World-making bottles. They should have been too bulky, too obvious, to fit in her pockets, but Lillian was her uncles’ student. She knew their tricks.
Honestly, that was almost all she knew. It was all she had been taught. Before she learned how to make things grow.
She didn’t have her uncles’ nostalgia. Forests and islands, and all the other worlds that came before this one, were meaningless to her. She couldn’t remember their first world, the one they hadn’t made. The one that was grand enough to have beaches, cities, and mountains all in one container. But the smell of honeysuckles, the act of sticking her fingers into the rich soil reminded her of . . . something. It helped that Marci and Gil had joined her. She’d learned how to make friends in this world, too.
Lillian paused for a moment in the hall, wondering if Arthur had noticed the missing bottles. If he’d come storming after her. A small part of her wished he would. Then they could have this fight out in the open.
But the laboratory doors stayed shut.
So, Lillian tucked the bottles back into her pocket and started down the hall again. She couldn’t go back to being just her uncles’ apprentice. She didn’t want to be just a world-maker anymore.
Don’t do anything drastic yet, she reminded herself. You still have one more uncle.
Through one of the hall’s many windows, she saw there were no stars left in the sky. Lillian hurried.
If we want to change the world, we must rebuild it around us.
Simon smiled as he tightened another bolt. This was his workshop and this was his simple tenet. It fit neatly among the panting engines and spinning axles.
He’d never admit this to his brother, but his workshop was the only place Simon felt some measure of happiness. His hands were covered in grease as he engaged pistons, meshed gears, and built the machines that ran the world. Here, he could lose himself for hours in the work. Here, the memories didn’t haunt his every breath.
The smell of honeysuckles wafted in and he knew, without turning, who was standing behind him.
“And I thought I was being sneaky,” she said.
Simon chuckled. But then he saw the expression on his niece’s face, and his smile died.
“What’s wrong, dear?”
“I saw the void today.”
Inwardly, Simon’s heart ached at this lost of innocence. Outwardly, he nodded. “It’s an emptiness that’ll haunt you.”
“How do you and Arthur deal with it? How do the townies we fish out of the void? Some of them were adrift in it for days.”
So were we, Simon thought. But she was too young to remember that. Or rather, young enough to forget. “We save what we can. Fix what we can. And when we can’t, we build new worlds.”
She nodded and wandered over to his workbench, picking up his failed attempt at a small mechanical wren. “There’s still so much we can fix here,” she said.
“Your uncle thinks this world is ugly and flawed.”
“Do you?” Lillian fiddled with the bird. A wing flapped awkwardly and Simon hunched his shoulders. Those birds were supposed to have been a gift to Aster, her mother, back when they weren’t in the business of building worlds. Back when they had a world more exquisite and complex than anything they could create.
“I always welcome the chance to redesign.” He turned back to the engine he was working on. “Look at this improvement.”
Simon reached up and began cranking one of the dozens of handles on the machine. At first, nothing happened. Then, there was a faint whistle from the hundreds of brass pipes overhead and a white vapor began to grow. Slowly, it blossomed and condensed, pressing up against the water-stained ceiling. A perfect cloud that grew darker and denser. Then, without warning, it began to rain.
Lillian gaped as raindrops began trickling over her face and palms. Simon grinned, pleased with the effect. He’d finally recreated another small piece of what was lost, and the next world would be better for it.
“In the mountains, this will become snow,” he explained.
“I’ve only ever read about snow,” she said, awed. Then her shoulders straightened. “But I think we should stay in this world.”
“What? And let all this work go to waste? Don’t be absurd, dear.”
“But we can use this here. The flowers —”
“Are too thirsty. It would overtax the system. Best to leave them behind,” he said. “Besides, you won’t have to spend hours watering anymore.”
“I like watering. I like all of it.”
Her quilted face was full of fierce determination. And Simon understood then, the love Lillian had for this world.
He understood it all too well.
When their world had shattered, the one they’d called home, he, his siblings, and his young niece escaped only by luck. Lillian was in poor shape, her mother even worse. He’d managed to sew Lillian back whole, but Aster . . . Simon always tried to fix what he could, but some days, everything was a reminder of what he couldn’t save.
“And what do Marci and Gil think?” he asked, and regretted it instantly. He’d seen how the three friends worked shoulder-to-shoulder in the garden.
Lillian was kind enough not to answer. Instead, she said “Can I help you with your work?” She ran a patchworked hand over the tools on the workbench. Hers were good hands, world-building hands. She had that much, at least.
Simon shook his head. Suddenly, he wanted nothing more than to be alone. “You’d better get back to your rooms. The workshop will be moving soon.”
For a moment, Lillian looked as heartbroken as he felt. She turned to go but paused with a hand resting on the doorknob. “Do you really want to leave, Uncle?”
Simon gave her a sad smile. “If I have nothing new to build, what will become of me?”
Lillian burst into her own small workshop like a storm, brimming with frustration and sadness. Marci, who’d been waiting for her, jumped when the door slammed open, making her drop the book she’d been reading. Across the room, Gil looked up but otherwise didn’t react as he continued to knot and unknot a piece of rope.
“They didn’t listen,” Lillian said.
Her friends’ expressions fell. No one was exactly surprised, but that didn’t mean they weren’t disappointed.
“What will you do?” Marci asked.
Lillian pulled out the two bottles from her pockets. “Stop them.” She tossed the bottles to Gil, who caught them in one swift, neat motion. “Ready?”
“It looks just like these?” Gil hefted a bottle in each hand.
Gil smiled that smile that Lillian knew spelled mischief. He placed the bottles on her desk and slipped out of the room.
“This might be a terrible idea,” Lillian admitted as soon as she was sure Gil was out of earshot. “If I get this wrong, I might ruin this world and my uncles’ new one, and we’ll all end up in the void. You should probably be trying to convince me not to do this, Marci.”
“Probably.” Her friend shrugged. “But I’m tired of saying goodbye to places I like. Besides, we’ve put too much work into the garden to just abandon it.”
Sometimes, Lillian wondered how she’d survived without friends for so long. Marci had washed up on her uncles’ beach world when they were both eight or nine, and though they had always been friendly, they’d never really become friends until Marci wandered into the garden as Lillian was planting her first tulip bulbs and offered to help.
Yet another thing she was grateful to this world for.
But who was she to risk everything because she’d found somewhere that made her happy? Or that sometimes, but only sometimes, when the light was just right, her flowers brought back a few patchy memories of the world she and her uncles had lost?
“This is selfish,” Lillian whispered.
“No,” Marci said, with surprising force. “It’s not. There were always rumors, you know. People in town are banking on you saving this world.”
“They should’ve told Arthur and Simon they wanted to stay here.”
“They did. A few times, actually. But you know how your uncles are.”
Yes, Lillian knew quite well. Marci put a hand on her shoulder. “Give us a world, Lillian. A permanent one.”
One glance at her friend’s earnest expression told Lillian that she wasn’t the only person who’d started to think of this place as home.
“Okay,” she said as she took a seat at her desk, the two bottles in front of her. From a pocket of her secondhand suit, she withdrew the toolkit she’d stolen from Simon’s workshop. “Okay.”
And she set to work.
Yes, this was infinitely better. Arthur could feel the change as soon as he transferred his laboratory into the new world. The air was colder, fresher, and the view from the windows would be stunning once they reassembled the sun. The mountain lodges they’d built were simple yet idyllic.
He stepped out of his laboratory and onto the balcony of the lodge, into the unfinished world. There were still vast swaths of gray space, and only the dusky outline of mountains was visible in the distance. But the shape of the world was here. The potential.
The world was so unfinished that if Arthur looked closely, he could see the glass walls of the bottle, its neck tapering in the distance. And beyond the glass, he saw the world he’d left behind, far away and minuscule below him. The perspective, after all, had changed. The house and the garden were still visible, though. Still within his reach.
Arthur withdrew a pair of thin, delicately curved tongs from his pocket, designed to pass through the illusion of perception. With the care of a glass blower, he reached through the narrow neck of the bottle of this world that was not as far away as it looked and into the neck of the world he was leaving behind.
Slowly, gently, he grasped the edges of the balcony of Simon’s workshop with the tongs and pulled. His brother’s workshop disengaged from the house, as it was designed to do, with a click, and carefully Arthur began to draw it through the narrow neck of each world. The workshop grew larger, heavier, more unwieldy as he pulled it closer. But Arthur’s practiced hands didn’t shake as he set the workshop down into the adjacent mountain lodge Simon had designed for himself. When the workshop was set in place, his brother came out onto the balcony of his new home and waved.
Arthur smiled. There was nothing quite like finally assembling your creations after so much planning and design.
Maybe he’d move Lillian’s rooms next. For all her stubbornness, she was a good assistant. Sharp. One day, she’d build worlds of her own. He didn’t fault her for falling in love with her work, only for not learning yet that nothing ever stayed the same.
Resources were going to be scarce, but maybe he’d create some asters and columbines for her here.
But first, where had he put those stars?
Gil knew himself. He knew he wasn’t nearly as clever as Lillian and Marci. He could not make worlds. He hadn’t even realized he was living in a vast but breakable world until his home had shattered like a ship against a reef. He knew he was no match against the void.
He had two talents, though. The first was fishing, and that came in handy. He was a master at finding valuable things beyond the Wall, among the torn newspaper clippings, bent cutlery, and the infinite amount of other junk that floated in the blossoming fields cleverly hiding the void. Standing on the Wall, in front of a window cut in the glass, Gil could spot where a good pair of shoes lurked or a packet of seeds. With a quick flick of his wrist, hook and sinker would vanish into the endless, flowering meadows, and when he reeled them back in, he would always have a prize. This skill had kept him well fed and honest back when he was just a sunburned sailor looking to catch the biggest fish. Back when he didn’t know other worlds existed. But here, it made him indispensable.
His second talent was thievery, what he used to rely on before he mastered the art of fishing. But he hadn’t used it since Simon pulled him through one of those windows in the glass and over the Wall. Out of the void.
He owed Simon his life.
Gil still dreamed of being lost in the void. Some nights he woke up shaking, too terrified to scream. He’d made himself irreplaceable for a reason. And the thought of losing yet another world . . .
So, he snuck into the gray and empty place that had been Arthur’s laboratory and found the glass bottle that held the new world sitting alone on the vacant floor.
His fingers hadn’t forgotten their old craft. He scooped up the bottle with practiced nimbleness and began retracing his steps to Lillian’s rooms. Each stride was a balancing act, so that not even the slight tremor touched the bottle in his hands and tipped the hats of the two men inside.
He felt guilty for the deception but not enough to make the slightest mistake. Gil didn’t care about the flower garden, like his friends did, but he had a place here. A purpose.
For that alone, this world was worth saving.
Despite what he’d told his niece, Simon did regret the necessity of destroying this world of flowers. But he needed the parts.
So while his brother fussed in his laboratory, Simon began pulling his equipment through the bottlenecks of the worlds, using greasy but still lovely world-making tongs of his own.
While Arthur created beautiful templates and models, Simon made them possible. Lillian had a knack for this too. At night, when worry and guilt gnawed at him, it was a comfort to know that this last surviving part of Aster could endure on her own, no matter what happened.
Simon’s workshop grew cluttered with his creations. For now, he placed them where he could fit them, more focused on getting the basics up and running than tidiness.
Still, he couldn’t help smiling as he worked. All the things he was going to create for this new world, all the upcoming improvements, would keep him busy for many days to come.
Lillian didn’t have Arthur’s skill to move entire rooms while she was standing in them, or Simon’s knowledge to build weather-changing machines. She was just herself, with her own ideas.
So she picked up one of the two bottles she’d filched from Arthur and crossed the room to the workbenches and shelves full of the materials and spare parts that she, Marci, and Gil had collected over the months. All the parts that were needed to start a world. Worlds.
Using needle-nose pliers, delicate and sharp, Lillian gently grasped the bottom of a shelf. Then, with an infinite amount of care, she did the impossible: she lifted the laden shelf with only the pliers and a steady hand. As she drew it closer to the mouth of the bottle she held in her other hand, the shelf began to diminish, until it was tiny enough to push through the opening of the bottle and into the world she’d built within the glass. She repeated this process over and over, until all the shelves were gone and her workshop felt strangely roomy. She bit back a laugh when she saw Marci’s amazed expression.
“Well, it’s all about perspective,” Lillian said as she placed the now-filled bottle on her desk. Her friend nodded, wide-eyed.
But like a tempo that picked up speed, her uncles started working quickly. She could hear the clicks when they moved vital pieces out of this world and into theirs. Though Lillian couldn’t see them or what they were transferring, she could feel her world begin to wither and shrink.
She didn’t hear Gil slip in and set the bottle with the new world on her desk, but Lillian swore when she saw how much progress her uncles had made. They would be moving her rooms soon.
“I need your help,” she told her friends. “Now.”
Marci became her second pair of hands, delivering tools when she asked, and Gil another set of eyes, quick to spot when Arthur or Simon removed a critical piece of this world. Lillian extracted what she could from their new world, moving machines like the generators and the water pumps into the second stolen bottle, also sitting on her desk. If she wanted to keep this world, the trick was to make their new creation collapse before this one did.
This will work, she thought. This will work. She ignored the exhaustion creeping into her fingers and refused to allow her hands to shake with doubt.
The strongest pangs of guilt hit her when she stole back the dismantled sun. She would’ve built her own from the scraps left behind, but her flowers would be long dead by then. She hoped Simon would understand.
Lillian dared to look up, just for a moment. From her window, she saw the crumbling stone Wall drawing closer as her world was emptying, disappearing. She wasn’t working fast enough.
“Get everyone from town in here, now,” she told Gil through clenched teeth. She kept her hands steady, but inwardly she was cursing, cursing, cursing.
Her home was slipping away.
Marci struggled to keep up with the urgent orders and swift hands of her friend. It was like when her older brothers used to play chess: frantic and calculating, removing some pieces while adding others back on. It set her teeth on edge, even though she knew they were making up the rules and no one was actually being sacrificed.
Lillian and her uncles were playing chess with the world around them.
Witches. That’s what her mother would’ve called them. Destroyers of worlds. But it wasn’t true. Marci had seen that aching look in Simon and Arthur’s eyes. The look you wore when you’d lost everything and found yourself floating in an endless void. She knew she wore that expression too, though she was only nine when she’d lost the world she called home. Still, she would never walk down the city streets she loved again, the smell of fresh pears and even fresher bread chasing her every step. Her home was gone for good.
The thing was, everyone in this little world wore that same expression. Everyone had that same ache. Except Lillian.
Marci had originally offered to help the quiet, strange-looking world-makers’ niece because she and the other townies realized that Arthur and Simon would never listen. They would never be satisfied with any world they made. The townies all agreed they needed a new strategy.
At first, Marci just wanted to convince Lillian to help them, but over the last few months, her motives had changed slightly. It wasn’t just this world that she needed to save. Marci never wanted to see that pained expression of loss in her friend’s eyes.
Something was wrong. Arthur could feel it. He’d finally found the stars tucked under a stack of papers. But when he stepped out onto the balcony again, the world had become inexplicably smaller. The mountains crushed up against the edge of town: the walls of the bottle were far too close. The world was losing mass somehow.
Swearing, Arthur began thinking through the math again.
No, stabilize this world first. He’d find the mistake when he was certain this world wouldn’t come crashing down.
Maybe, just maybe, he could transfer the entire house from the old world into this one. That should offer some mass balance, though it would be tricky to move such an enormous object between worlds. But if it worked . . .
Arthur ducked inside to retrieve his tongs.
Simon realized something was wrong with this world. The clouds he made refused to float out onto the balcony and into the open sky. He stepped out of his workshop only to discover that the glass boundary of this world was inches away. Their new world was on the verge of collapse. Arthur must have made one of his rare errors in calculations.
Simon wiped the engine grease from his hands. Once again, it was up to him to fix his brother’s mistakes. He strode through his workshop searching for the largest machine he had: the sun.
Only to find it was gone.
Lillian transferred the bottle that held her uncles’ world into the glass bottle she’d painstakingly filled with bookshelves and tools. She set the world down on the floor there among the rows and rows of shelves. Her uncles would notice the world had moved without their permission.
But she hoped they could forgive her for it.
“What the hell is going on?”
Simon heard Arthur slam through the doors of his workshop. “I think . . . I think we’ve been betrayed, Arthur.”
“Impossible. By who?”
Simon didn’t answer. Instead, he walked out onto the balcony, the hammer heavy in his hand, the ache in his chest more so. With the gentlest of strikes, he reached out and tapped the boundary of the world.
The glass cracked, and the world of mountains and snow fell away.
“She stole our world,” Arthur said, his hands tightening into fists, as the glass crumpled and fell, shattering at their feet, and they found themselves in a world they didn’t recognize.
“Arthur . . . look.”
The new world was little more than just a room. But it was stuffed with workbenches and tables, and rows and rows of shelves full of empty bottles and spare gears, valves, and hundreds of other materials collected from the void. Most of the bottles weren’t as large or clear or beautiful as the ones they normally used to build worlds. But this place was a treasure trove, the heart stuff of hundreds of new homes, waiting to be born.
The note on the closest shelf read: “Thank you for all you taught me. Build new worlds for all the people still lost in the void.”
The workspace appeared to stretch into eternity. It was an illusion, of course. But it was a good one.
“We can’t just abandon her,” Arthur said. “Aster would never forgive us. We should go back.”
“Could we do that without destroying this place?” Simon asked, running his hands over the gleaming workbenches.
Arthur opened his mouth but then caught sight of the immaculate laboratory Lillian had designed for him. “We could create so much here. Think of the possibilities, Simon,” he said, eyes shining. “Do you think she’ll be all right on her own? Until we design a world large enough for all of us, that is.”
Simon didn’t trust himself to speak, so he just smiled. He would miss his niece terribly, but with her gift, he could do so much, save so many.
For the first time in years Simon felt the faint tugging of a world he could call home.
Her world was a mess. And when Lillian stepped out of the house in the middle of the garden, she was wearing one of her uncles’ old suits again. Except this time, she’d altered it to be patchworked like her. After dozens of long days of work, the sun was bright and her flowers were flourishing again. This time she wore her suit because it fit.
Her irises and foxgloves had grown tall and wild in her absence, and Lillian brushed the petals with her fingers as she walked through the garden towards town.
There were still cracks in the road and the water main was dripping again, but she had some new designs in progress. The townies were busy rebuilding too, sweating but smiling as she passed, and she waved to them but didn’t slow her pace. She didn’t hesitate when she reached the ladder leaning against the Wall and swiftly climbed to the top.
Beyond the Wall, her illusion needed work. It wasn’t much to look at, just damp earth and pale skies that stretched out forever. But the promise of spring lingered in the air, like untapped potential.
I can work with this, Lillian thought, nodding. She was home now. She had time to learn how to make this world grow.
About the Author
A. T. Greenblatt is a mechanical engineer by day and a writer by night. She lives in Philadelphia where she’s well acquainted with all four seasons and is known to frequently subject her friends to various cooking and home brewing experiments. She is a graduate of Viable Paradise XVI and Clarion West 2017. Her work is forthcoming or has appeared in Uncanny, Strange Horizons, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, as well as other fine places. You can find her online at http://atgreenblatt.com and on Twitter at @AtGreenblatt.