The soup was tasteless and scalding hot. He looked around. He was alone, and something had beaten all the color out of the daylight in the sanctuary. They had wrapped him in blankets and given him a bowl of hot soup, but he was cold. For the first time, he considered death not as the greatest pain imaginable, but as release from the pain that already was.
Stella came in with a carafe and a mug. She smiled sadly at him and set the stuff down. “Coffee? It might wake you up. Warm you up, too.”
He nodded. “What time is it?”
“I guess I didn’t sleep that long. I think I should go back to bed.”
“Austin, you’ve been sleeping for four and a half days.”
She sat down. “Go on, eat that soup. It’s fresh off the stove. The heat should do you some good.”
“Stella, I’m cold. This stuff burns my mouth.”
She touched his cheek. “Gods, you are cold.” She shook her head. “I don’t know what else to do for you. I looked in the old books, but there’s no mention of anything like this.”
“Anything like what?” Now he was waking up enough to feel fear.
“Anything like… well, you challenged a dark servant.” Her brow had gone heavy and her voice quiet. “It nearly unmade you.”
He forced himself to eat. Soon she got up and left him alone. He pushed his bowl away after a few more mouthfuls and waited for the sunshine to get warmer. It didn’t, but at last something moved down below and digestion got started and he felt a little strength come back.
He pushed the chair back and stood, draped in weighty blankets. That tingling must have been the return of circulation, but it wasn’t complete. He pulled the blankets tight around himself and hobbled towards the side door.
He took the wide shallow steps down into the basement. He had gone thundering down these same stairs running from Israel, but now his footfalls were measured, spaced, silent.
At the bottom, two doors down from the kitchen, voices echoing around the corner…
“So he’s awake?” said Gaddo.
“Yes. The soup seemed to help.”
“It’s Sunday… he’s been down for four days. He needs something more substantial than soup.”
“He’ll have to ease into it, though.”
Silence, clinking dishes, sloshing water.
“It’s a strange August first, you know,” said Gaddo. “It’s more like September first, or even October first. Everything’s faded; the sunlight is cold.”
“Austin brought the darkness with him out of the portal. The decay is spreading.”
“Stella, if this goes on…”
“Yes, it does make the situation a little more urgent.”
“Are you sure that searching for Miranda is the best use of our…”
She must have silenced him with a look. After a while she said, “What do you think of Austin?”
Austin blinked, gulped, strained—
“I think he has it. I know it runs in the family; his uncle had it…”
“His father didn’t.”
“Can’t explain the genetics,” said Gaddo. “I wonder, though; I wonder if he can use it.”
“Matt, you know how dangerous that is. If someone doesn’t have it, trying to use the portal will rip him atom from atom—”
“I know. But I don’t have to remind you how he led us on the journey as a child. He has some rare kind of intuition, Stella; he may be able to fold-travel through the portal.”
No. He didn’t want to be special. He didn’t want to have special artistic capacities or special vision or special whatever-the-hell-traveling abilities…
Gaddo and Stella, in the hall. They stopped and stared, and then Gaddo came up and laid an arm on his shoulder. “How do you feel, Austin?”
“Oh… I’m coming back, slowly.”
“You need to walk,” said Stella, looking at him. “Get rid of those blankets. They’re holding you back psychologically. Besides, we’re going to go work on the ship. Come with us.”
“No, I’m cold.”
“You’re cold because you think you’re cold.”
A few minutes later he was walking out the back door of the church with them, blanketless, his heart getting up to speed. Languid blue air hung over the grass, and the reverent wind wouldn’t stir it. Green’s striving vibrancy had faded; life lay back now, resigned, waiting for a change of seasons, perhaps for something more momentous. Gaddo was right: the sunshine was cold and faded, and the world was edging towards a more permanent rest than winter. How could it be August first?
“So you saw the portal?” said Gaddo as they sliced through the tall waving grass.
“Yes… I must have seen other dimensions, or whatever you said.”
“And you went inside?”
“My finger went into the rift, yes.”
Gaddo looked at Stella. “See? If his finger could go inside…”
She snorted. “Would you ever ask him to try his whole body? No, of course not—not after what happened.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Austin.
“Nothing,” said Gaddo. “Just our usual arguments.”
“Why are you arguing about me? I don’t like it.”
“How did you get away?” She must have heard none of that. “Quite miraculous, in my opinion.”
He stumped on in silence. Should he tell them about the little blade that had appeared out of nowhere? No—absolutely not. He had made it accidentally out of the same stuff as his strange sculptures. Clearly it was the product of the vine’s intoxication, and if Stella knew that he was using her plant as a drug—
“Something must have cut those black cords,” said Gaddo.
Austin said nothing.
“Austin, do you realize what you were fighting?” asked Stella.
“No.” His voice shook.
“No human being, no alien person from another fold, has ever been able to free itself from such a powerful dark servant,” she murmured. “Now, the people of Vellagherdia can fight creatures like that; but their bodies are made of pure starlight, and they are fragments of a star, and their limbs can slice through anything. The fact that you escaped is astounding.”
“I’m telling you, he has it,” said Gaddo. “It, or something even more powerful.”
“What? What do I have? Stop talking about me like I’m not here!”
“You may be able to fold-travel,” said Gaddo quietly. “You may be able to enter the portal and reach any of those universes you saw, using nothing but your own willpower.”
“I keep telling him to give it up,” said Stella to Austin. “Yes, if you had that ability, you would be incredibly useful to our work; but it’s far too dangerous for you to test it. If you don’t have the strength for fold-travel, attempting it will tear you atom from atom.”
“We’ll have to file this away,” said Gaddo. “It may be useful in the future.”
“At the risk of his life?!” she laughed.
“Stella, in the scope of our work—”
And they kept at it like that for the rest of the walk.
The jumbled iron form of the ship glared in the sun. Feet had trampled the vegetation around it, and the entry hatch was open.
“We’ve done a little work,” said Stella.
They walked in under the overhanging side of the ship. The giant rivets were cold in the shade.
“So… someone knows how to get this thing running?” said Austin distractedly.
Gaddo chuckled. “That falls to me, I suppose.”
Austin gave him a raised eyebrow.
“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll figure it out. I wish Israel were here, though.”
“Didn’t you hear that rumbling?” said Stella. “He’s on his way.”
“You mean… now?”
“I can hear him coming.”
“Oh.” Gaddo listened but shook his head. “My poor ears… oh well. I’ll go get him, Stella, if you want to explain it all to Austin.” He struck off down the hill.
Austin hardly cared about the spaceship, and Stella wouldn’t speak to him or look at him. He had to talk. Something had to happen. It couldn’t go on. At last he said, “So… I was thinking… I want to help you find Miranda.”
She glanced at him with new openness. “Really?”
“Yes. It just seems—forgive me—our goals are so huge, sometimes I doubt whether we’ll succeed. And honestly, sometimes I doubt whether it matters.”
“But finding Miranda matters.”
She nodded. “Hm. Maybe that’s your purpose with us. Maybe you’re here to help me find her. I’m still not sure how I’m going to go about it, but I’ll let you know when I figure it out.”
“I may have a start for you.”
He told her about his vision. Rather than mention the details of his intoxication, he framed the experience as a dream.
“And when her face rolled over, I saw Lewis’s jaw. It was her.”
Stella shook her head and looked far away to the west, as if she could sense Miranda from a great distance. When she finally turned back to him, her eyes were heavy with weariness. “I know she’s out there, Austin. I’m going to find her.” Suddenly her hard gaze fell on him again. “You can help me.”
“Stella, where is she?” he cried. “What I saw can’t be real, can it?”
“The darkness is powerful. It can make anything real.”
“Then… how can we hope to rescue her?!”
“I never said there was hope.”
“But can’t we try?”
Her upsweeping eyes pierced the washout of the day with something like distant sunshine. “Try?” And then the faintest flickering of spring, of smile, at the corners of her brilliant lips. “Yes. We can try.”
She was standing closer, stalwart yet graceful pillar, the bulwark of their whole operation, so strong that she must be all strength—and yet soft beneath, soft in the deep warm beneath that she couldn’t show because the only essence that she accepted in herself was her brains, focus, drive and desire.
But she did not resist.
The fragrance of that bashful meeting, of mind and heart at last joined and given instead of withheld, would never leave his nostrils—
But his arms slid off hidden hips and hung at his sides.
“You know I can’t—”
“You can’t?! If you—I always knew—”
One careful step turned her body away.
“What I said still stands. It’ll stand forever.”
“If you don’t—why did you—”
“Because your mouth is so beautiful, Austin.”
“Why won’t you break for me, Stella? Everything is right. It’s right on paper, it’s right in our hearts, it’s just plain right and it’s always been—”
“Our connection is transitory. This place is not my home. I’m not staying much longer. When I leave, you could never—”
“Wherever you’re going in the universe, I’ll go there with you! No, I’ll take you there: we’ll go through the portal to whatever fold you choose. We’ll find new dimensions together!”
“You don’t understand.”
“I’m working towards the past, Austin.”
“I can find the past in the portal—I saw every fold of reality in there—”
The meekest of glances silenced him. “That past is in my future, Austin.”
His head ached. The convoluted structure of her reality—
“Even if you could use the portal, you couldn’t bring about that time any faster. The universe is already churning and rolling and stumbling towards that moment. Do you realize that he will make all things new? You can’t do his work in his place. You’re not a god, Austin, whatever they tell you in Babylon.” She regarded him calmly from under sinking eyelids.
“But Stella… how could you… why? Why trick me? I thought you loved me, at least as a friend!”
She started, and the faintest gleam came into her eyes. “I do, I do. You’ll always be my friend, Austin. I’m so sorry! I shouldn’t have done that. It was horribly wrong for both of us. I’m sorry. That was so selfish!”
“It was not selfish!” The rage in the echoes of his own voice silenced him. “I want you, Stella.” Now he spoke in a squashed cadence. “I want you. You want me. There’s nothing else to it.”
“You’re an idiot if you really think that. Raw desire is only the first tier. You can’t even imagine the dimensions soaring above that in which we’re at odds. I can’t help you.”
“In what ways am I wrong for you? Is it my intellect? My emotions? My spirit?”
“I love each of those in you.”
“Gods, Stella! What more is there to a person?!”
“Purpose.” The word fell from her mouth like a lead block. She knew its devastation. “My purpose and yours are dreadfully misaligned. I already told you my purpose. What your purpose is, I have no idea. Either you still haven’t found it, or it’s so vastly different from mine that I can’t see it at all.”
“Oh, so I’m pointless? That’s nice!”
“You’re not listening to me.”
“Stella—is this about L’Hermitage? Is it about how I left and came back? Do you think I’m not committed? Because I’ll leave Babel forever if that’s what you want. I’ll give up my art. I’ll throw myself at this business, all of myself, if that’s what you want!”
“All I want is for you to be yourself, Austin. The thing is, your self and my self don’t go together.”
No birds sang in the long silence.
“Stella,” he said at last, “I don’t understand how you can love me and not love me at the same time.”
“Neither do I.” She would not look at him.
“And I don’t understand this fuss about purpose. I believe in our cause—”
“It isn’t our cause. No one is quite on board with me. Gaddo has ideas and ideals, and he may have had visions; but he took the wrong path from the beginning and led the work astray. He still thinks Babel should be saved. He can’t admit that Babel is our greatest enemy and beyond redemption. I don’t know why he can’t see it; they’ve destroyed the earth to build that tower, and it’s only a matter of time before the earth rises up and destroys them in return. That’s our job—to facilitate that process. But it doesn’t matter. Inevitability rolls onwards, with or without Gaddo.”
“You are so egotistical…”
“Then there’s Israel.” She spoke with freight-train momentum. “He’s with us because he met us at the right time and had a spiritual experience. Well, good for him; he likes to listen to his emotions one moment and his brain the next. I’m sorry, but he’s an idiot. He thinks he believes in our cause, but when he isn’t sobbing, he’s too absorbed with systems and sciences and just-so’s. If he saw the great glory in the flesh, he would go mad, for the great glory is the constant negation of all systems, of all sciences. As such, it’s completely beyond his comprehension.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” He squinted: her face was alien.
“We aren’t unified, Austin. I say this with the greatest love for all three of you: none of you sees what’s really going on.”
Austin turned away. Even when his heart was breaking, she could not get off the subject. She could not give up her freaking devotion to her bullshit.
And now she pretended to examine the structure of the ship.
He had lived so long under the brooding tension of this mystery that its dissolution left him aimless. Life did not begin in some future potentiality; life began right now, and it was nothingness. He was not sad, but empty. He had dreamt of that kiss a thousand times. Now it had come and found negation just as fast. Had he ever loved Stella, or had he only told himself that he loved her? Was there any difference?
But the picture of Stella—
No. She was not a goddess; she was only human. She was just as finite and unfulfilling as Jessica. What he had taken for bottomless pools of love and mercy in her were nothing but puddles—and thus with all the stores of wisdom and intuition and charity that he had imagined in her.
“I’m sorry, Austin.”
The sound spun him sharply against his will. She stood at the edge of the shadow cast by the ship, and the sun fell full on her face and shoulders.
“Can we be friends? I’ve been too harsh. We may not all agree on the details, but we can agree on the mission, can’t we?”
The mission? Really? Was she saying that?
“I don’t want to lose our friendship, Austin.”
Friendship? Wasn’t it all lust and use? He had always lusted and she had always used. What could he do? She was incomprehensible. Cowed, defeated, he mumbled the easiest words he could think of. “We can be friends…”
“I don’t want you to live in pain, Austin. Leave me and never come back, if it’s better for you.” At least she showed some sadness in saying it.
There was nothing else. Babel was unfulfilling. Only at L’Hermitage had he glimpsed cosmic significance; and even if the goals were unreachable, as was currently fashionable to tell himself, nothing could replace the thrill of that work. Besides, Stella might come around someday…
“I tried to leave when Israel… you know… well, I learned my lesson. I can’t leave this place for good.”
She smiled weakly. “You are one of us, Austin, as I’ve always said—for better or worse.”
No. Enough of her. He looked vaguely towards the west, towards Babylon. There was always his art…
“Go on, then,” she murmured. “Don’t come back until you’re ready.”
How did she always read his mind? He turned and struck off through the trees.
He went to the greenhouse and got down on his knees. This was the last chance he might have in quite a while. The dull throb of the vine reached for him, but his hand overcame it and wrenched away a cluster.
He had a strange thought: Give the plant a piece of metal. What would it do with that?
He took an unused shelf bracket and stretched it towards the plant. He could feel the voltage waiting to arc.
The vine snatched the bracket and tore it to shrieking shreds and the tendrils swam upwards with the speed of living limbs, twisting the shelf above them; but almost at once they turned sluggish and clumsy and went still.
He only stopped running when he burst out the side door into the parking lot. Israel was there leaning on his truck, and Gaddo stood with him, arms folded. Israel held an open newspaper. Parts of the paper lay all around, tossing idly in the breeze, flashing white in the sun.
“It’s a lie; I know it is. Look at the photo—it isn’t even her! It’s almost as if they feel the need to cover something up or turn someone away.”
“Oh, Austin! Look at this.” Israel came over and straightened the paper.
Austin read the headline aloud. “Miranda Israel confirmed dead.” His eyes strayed to the subheading. “New Babylon girl’s disappearance six years ago finally solved.” The girl in the picture was not Miranda.
“Complete nonsense. First of all, I knew nothing of this alleged breakthrough until I heard it on the news. How dare they run a piece in all media outlets without notifying the surviving family member first? Austin, I heard about this on the radio! No one called me; no one came to my door.”
“But that isn’t Miranda,” said Austin, looking up.
“You bet it isn’t! This picture doesn’t even remotely resemble her. What a joke. Bastards. How dare they!”
“What does the article say?”
“Oh, some nonsense about them finding remains in the park, not far from where she was taken. The remains were confirmed by dental forensics. But they couldn’t even get their facts together to write a good lie: they say they found the remains of a 13-year-old girl. Miranda was eleven when she was taken!”
“Well, you know the truth,” Austin shrugged. “Go out there and preach it to the world.”
“I hate to change the subject, but it’s somewhat urgent,” said Austin. “I need to get back to Babylon as soon as possible.”
Israel looked at him doubtfully. “Are you running away again?”
“Of course not! I just have some things to attend to in the city. I have a life there too, you know.”
Gaddo studied Austin’s face. “Why did you decide so suddenly?”
Austin blinked. “I—er—I forgot about some things. I have a lot on my mind. You know how easily overwhelmed I am.”
Gaddo nodded. “Mm hm.”
“Can someone take me back? I didn’t drive here…”
“Yes, of course,” Gaddo mused, “but we’d better not take my car.”
“Take my truck,” said Israel. “I filled it up before I left Babylon.”