Revolving Door: Volume 2
Where Threads Interweave
For a second more, all four of them are standing on Hungarian soil, amid the gentle forest and the rustle of the river.
And then they are not.
As Honourless gives a cry, Vesper sees the world start to stretch and warp into rippling lines, like electrocardiographs charting the beating of a heart larger than the earth.
Then a great roaring surges through her skull, drowning out her thoughts, and she is torn from the world that previously tethered her, like a button from a piece of fabric.
All her years of warfare have barely prepared for this. Forces throttle her in every direction, shaking her loose of all sense of location. She is hurtling through an abstract painting of unplaceable visions. The world has been drawn into threads, stretching on towards the distance no matter which way she looks. She shouts, but she cannot hear herself over the sound of space pulled thin around her. The only thing telling her she hasn’t become a thread in reality’s loom is the feeling of a hand grasping her own, though even that, she fears, might be wrenched out of her grasp at any moment.
There is nothing she can do but to close her eyes against the nausea roiling in her chest, and let this otherworldly storm spin and pull and toss her as it will.
She can’t say how long this monstrous roaring lasts, or how long she is detached from any notion of place or identity. Ten minutes? Twenty? She wants nothing more than for it to end, and when at last she sees things starting to solidify from the striated vision engulfing her—a flash of sky, a bit of grass—she almost cries out in relief.
The lights slow, and still, like a pond after a stone has disturbed it. As suddenly as she was dragged into it, Vesper is thrown out of this space-time vortex.
Her senses are awakened to the world by the rustling of grass. She tries to turn her head. Behind her, she hears the groan of a child’s voice, a thud of a body against earth.
She blinks. Grass fills her vision, bright green in the daylight, and the air here feels…hot. Like the heat in the underbelly of a tank, pressing down on her prone figure.
She looks ahead. Out of the grass rises a dark square plinth. Upon the plinth towers a statue of a seated man, and his name Alowolo engraved in gold beneath him. Ribcage aching, Vesper begins to prop herself up on one arm, sagging as a wave of dizziness slams into her.
On a road off to her left, a grey car rumbles by. She stares at it through her daze, and a strange rising sensation, between thrill and dread, fills her chest, for the car is too flat for a car, and it sits too close to the ground. Its corners are too smooth and its engine does not rattle or chug. She cannot take her eyes from it till it is out of sight.
“Honourless!” The same child’s voice pierces through that thought, accompanied by the sound of her feet stomping on grass. “What in the Light’s name was that landing?”
Unintelligible, gravelly grumbling answers.
That sound is the thing that finally shakes Vesper out of her stupor and drags her back up to the surface of awareness. She turns and sees the tall woman with ash-brown hair—Honourless—sitting on the ground with her head in her hands. She gasps as that vision starts a fast-forward film reel of the past day unspooling in her head.
Orobelle. The self-proclaimed duchess. Orobelle, who first found her on a beach at Dunkirk, appeared before her again at Kalocsa, bringing a man named Dorian and a woman named Honourless who does not speak a lick of any language she knows. They all linked hands on the river’s edge, when the rest of the Number 60 wasn’t looking, and then everything…disappeared.
A rumble swells overhead, almost so reminiscent of the sound of that strange place between existences that another reflexive wave of dizziness sweeps over Vesper. She glances up—to see a large aircraft is passing over them, roaring like something out of an H.G. Wells novel, larger than even the Yorks that took them to Gergen Bridge.
She stares as it passes slowly beneath the blue, and she shivers.
It’s one thing to stand on a beach in the wind, and hear a mysterious child tell rave about other worlds—easy to think she might be going slightly mad, rather than believe the more frightening possibility.
But now, watching an aircraft that could not possibly exist pass overhead, it is beginning to sink in. The Number 60, their tanks and their rifles, the war that has scarred the world indelibly—is not here. It is nowhere. This is not the world she knows. There is only grass, and this serene obsidian sculpture gazing out over them.
“Well, focus harder next time!” Orobelle snaps, while Dorian offers his arm to the child. Honourless groans back, her face buried in her lap. “You are here to do just one thing, so do it right!”
“Give her some slack,” Vesper shouts.
“Tell me what to do again, I dare you!” The glare Orobelle shoots her could melt iron. For once, however, Vesper knows she can suffer no repercussions from glaring back, so she does.
“You can take it or leave it,” she says, walking to Honourless’ side—a movement that makes her head spin again. “Yelling at her won’t help.”
“Dorian, my watch,” Orobelle says coldly, turning away.
While he swings the luggage bag off his shoulder onto the grass and unbuckles the flap, Vesper sits back down on the ground and heaves a great sigh, waiting for the dizziness to ebb. Beside her she catches a glance from Honourless. The woman smirks as their eyes meet.
Only now that they are not hurtling through space does she see the scars that crisscross the woman’s neck and limbs, and the ragged knotted fabric she wears as clothes. There are bite and claw marks from predators much larger than any she’s seen, and some that look more deliberate on her left arm, forming a row of symbols. The hand of that arm is missing the last two fingers.
“Lived quite a life, haven’t you,” Vesper says. Honourless doesn’t seem to comprehend the question, but her gaze is now attentive. “So have I, you know. But I s’pose that’s to be expected, with powers like ours.”
“There! There is one here!” Orobelle proclaims in the background. With a sigh, Vesper begins to stand back up, and Honourless is also making an effort to do so. The duchess strides toward them and plants both hands on her hips. “Let us go now.”
“Go where?” Vesper asks.
“Go find the next Core,” she says. Dorian picks up her luggage.
“Core? An apple core? The earth’s core? That doesn’t tell me anything.”
“You are a Core! Dorian is a Core! We’re here to find the next one like you!”
Her eyes widen. “Someone with abilities like ours?”
“Maybe. Dorian’s domain is heat and cold, and yours are nothing like his, so I assume this third Core will have a completely different set of skills.”
Vesper casts a glance at Honourless. “You’re not a Core?”
“No, she is a Ghost, and she was a convict, and she’s earning her parole by transporting us. Now, are we going to stop wasting time?”
“Ghosts, Cores, this is a lot of words being used in unusual ways,” Vesper mutters. “How are we supposed to find the next person?”
Orobelle motions one of the two gleaming watches forward, and it occurs to her now that it may not be a watch, but a compass.
“Does that thing tell you how far away the person is?”
“No. But we aren’t getting any closer by standing here.”
“But why are we—“
She groans. “How many questions do you have?”
Vesper folds her arms. “You just spirited me away from my company without explanation! You can’t frankly expect me to follow you without knowing what we’re doing.”
“Fine! Take notes, because I will only say this once. I’m gathering you—the eight Cores—to protect me from my villain. Now do what I tell you, move fast, and stop asking questions!”
This is not the sort of storybook I want to be in, thinks Vesper with a sigh. Orobelle and Dorian have already marched away in a direction that she can only suppose the magical compass is pointing, and she follows the strange troupe, lost in the daze of everything she’s still in the midst of understanding.
A day’s walking northwest later, Vesper Lovelace finds that the fact of the matter—that she has landed in a new universe—has slipped straight from fiction to understanding, more easily than she expected. Now that she’s past disbelief, she is on the constant lookout for things she recognises, reference points for comprehending this new place and its relation to her own.
“This is Lagos!” A pair of passers-by, one with hair shaved to her scalp and the other wearing it in fine braids, fill in the group of sweaty tourists with bemused frowns. “You don’t know where you’re having your vacation? How did you know the right airplane to take?”
Airplane? “We didn’t come here on an airplane,” Vesper says. “It’s a long story.”
Vesper would like to know so much more, but that is all she asks, for now. An hour or two longer, they journey northwest with no bearings on time or place, Vesper trying desperately to pick out some sign of what year it is as they go. It is clearly the future relative to where she came from—the cars are quieter, the aircraft are twice as large. But none of the science fiction tales she read and watched voraciously as a child—Flash Gordon, the Rocket Men series—prepared her to reckon with this reality, for this reality is simply, infuriatingly...normal.
Everywhere she turns, there are no silver towers or egg-shaped cars—there are certainly towers, but they are colourful and worn by age, and so too are the people, in colourful gowns and blouses, some holding palm-sized slabs that beam photographs and moving pictures at them. Where she thought there would be steel and white plastic, there are riotous colours, colours and scents, and rust and earth like her own, and heat.
And it is alive with electricity. She can feel it surging through the wires overhead, in hidden conductors beneath her feet, through almost every piece of signage. A great circulatory system of power lines keeps the city breathing, and the farther she walks, the more she finds her heart racing with her growing awareness of its omnipresence, moving as it moves, through this great network, till she's racing around in wonder like a child in a museum for the first time.
Two streets down, on an orange grime-streaked wall, Vesper finds the answer to one of her questions in a film poster.
July 2013, it reads. This is the world past the turn of the millennium.
While Orobelle and her strange entourage catch up to her, Vesper lingers before the poster and stares, awe welling up in her chest. Front and centre, there stands a giant mechanised suit of armour, overshadowing the boat in the foreground. The armour suit, the boat, and the ocean they're in—the scene is blue and grey and uncannily lifelike, but still clearly a fabrication, like a painting, with more detail than a human painter could possibly produce.
An unexpected twinge of familiarity seizes her. For seconds, she suddenly understands why being here is nothing like being inside a sci-fi story. The futuristic worlds she knew as a child were nothing but projections of the present, and their denizens floated in temporal bubbles, severed from the past, dreaming of no distant futures of their own—existing only for the reader, the watcher.
But history is made up of overlapping layers or interweaving threads, past and future bleeding into each other. The city plans of 2013 are the city plans of 1945, though the stone-and-mortar slowly and surely becomes cement and steel. But between them, cars and buses still rumble, wires still criss-cross, and trodden grass lies by pavements by intersections.
Is this the future awaiting her own world, or one of many? That's a trick question. She is standing here, enveloped in sound and colour, and she understands. This is not a future. It is the present, the only present.
Then Vesper blinks, and she is only staring at a film poster again. Around her the chatter is steady and dull, English accented differently from her own.
In this heat, it is not hard to imagine she is simply on a different continent in the same world as always. But this place bears no mark of her twenty-year existence, and she has all at once been cut loose from memory, and obligation.
She finds the thought liberating.
They begin to feel the beating sun take its toll barely an hour into the walk. Orobelle grumbles of thirst and Dorian offers her a glass flask of some pale pink liquid, from which she takes no more than a dainty sip before returning it. Vesper, however, must endure the the heat without drink.
It takes perhaps two or three more hours of northwestward progress for them to realise that finding the next Core isn’t simply going to happen. Vesper can tell from overheard conversation between Dorian and Orobelle that they are reaching the end of their patience. They aren’t about to waltz into the home of their mark and invite them to a universe-hopping adventure over a spot of tea.
By the time the sun has sunk to the horizon, the needle still points unwaveringly northwest. Stopping in front of a boutique whose entrance is framed in rainbow threads, Orobelle turns back to the rest. “That’s it!” she shouts. “We’re not going to find them today. And also, my feet hurt, I’m sweaty, and my mood is poor. We shall find lodging.”
“That seems wise,” Dorian murmurs.
“Lodging where?” Vesper says. “You don’t intend to march into a hotel without any naira, do you?”
Dorian and Orobelle exchange a look that both seem to understand instantly. That same understanding takes a bit of time to dawn on Honourless, but when it does, she grins at the duchess for the first time.
It isn’t until the child and her retainer vanish into the boutique beside them that Vesper realises what they mean to do. She stands in the orange sun and faces away from the door, alone with her horror, until she becomes aware that Honourless is still there, grinning in the shop’s direction. As a breeze blows by, she returns Vesper’s stare with a look that might be amused or curious. She says something Vesper does not understand.
“What was that?” She leans closer.
“Athe,” Honourless replies—or at least that is how Vesper hears it.
She raises an eyebrow. “Athe?” she imitates the syllables as closely as she can. The tall woman chuckles, and then utters a longer sentence that Vesper does not catch the whole of—she points at herself and says, Ka’Inith, or something, then another sentence, slower and with an air of dignity.
“Ka’Inith,” she replies. Honourless. The woman grins wider, tipping her head to a side in an affirming gesture. “I’m Vesper, pleased to meet you.”
“Vesper? Athe,” she replies, and the sound of her name from Honourless’ mouth startles her.
She blinks in the sunset light, and the moment’s reverie is cloven in two by a sudden bellow of “Thief!”
Then Dorian hurtles towards them, setting gowns aflutter, and he shouts, “catch!” There is a flash of white and red as he flicks a familiar card at Vesper. She gasps and snatches Orobelle out of the air as he himself leaps and shrinks into a bright pink rectangle, solidifying into a second card.
Honourless lunges for Dorian’s card and shoves it into her sash. Seconds later, a shopkeeper with a shaven head thrusts his face through the archway of gowns, eyes glistening with tears of frustration. “Where did she go?” he shouts, clutching his forehead with his free hand. “For God’s sake, help me! She took everything!”
It takes every ounce of mental fortitude in Vesper not to apologise, not to turn to the card and threaten to tear it till the girl inside emerges with the stolen money. Gritting her teeth, she puts on as good of a show of concern as she can, pointing up the road and exclaiming, “yes, I saw them go that way!”
And then she sprints off up the junction, only glancing once to check that Honourless is following—and then dashes across, fast as a bullet—dodges in front of screeching cars and leaps off the road and sprints away without looking back.
Only two streets down, as the crowds close behind them and they round the side of a building of cement and peeling paint, does Vesper stumble to a stop and hold up the card in her hand, growling, “You’d better not have ruined someone’s livelihood.”
“Such a doer of good!” card-Orobelle scoffs. “If you would like to spend the evening out on the streets, you are welcome to!” Vesper bites back a reprimand. The card heats up in her hand, and the duchess springs out onto the tar. In her hand, she fans out what must be a fortune in bank notes. “You could stand to sweat less.”
Vesper clenches her jaw. “It’s easily thirty-five degrees.”
“I don’t know what that means,” the child says with a dismissive flick of her hand. Nearby, Honourless laughs as Dorian re-emerges on the earth-stained road. “Now we must find someplace to stay the night, and plot.”
Again, Vesper must fight the guilt welling in her chest, must force the image of the shopkeeper on the brink of tears out of her mind. Orobelle is right; without this, they would most certainly be sleeping in an alley tonight, or worse, not sleeping at all. And even she—who has spent years camping in forests and swamps—baulks at the thought.
Momentarily she is seized by an awareness of the absurdity of this. She has killed thousands. What difference does living on stolen money make?
Still, it almost feels like a crime as she nods in grudging agreement. “Alright, then, thieves,” she says. “Let’s find a place to stay.”