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Authors: Skyler White

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BOOK: Strongest Conjuration
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“I don't remember.” I heard fear in my voice, but I couldn't feel it. “Maybe I left my mind in my memory?”

Phil grunted in sleepy understanding. “The Garden is created in imagination, but it's maintained in attention. You're still thinking about it is all.”

“I don't think I'm thinking.” I closed my eyes inside the comfort of his arms. “I feel weird,” I said. “Like I'm not at home in my head.”

She is dead and we carry her inside and hide her. We carry fire, and they cause cavedark to run overfeet like water, overcave like deer

“Look!” he says at a shape on the cavestone. I whimper. Not her face, but her faceshape overstone.

I grind ash overcave to cause her faceshape to stay, and not run. I like it, but I cry

“Stop,” he says, and shows his teeth. I show mine, and we play.

7. Fires Burning

“Good morning, Phil. Coffee?”

“Mph. Where's Ren?”

“On the sofa grazing, since before I got up.”

“Did you make tea?”

“Oh right, I forgot Ren doesn't drink coffee. I'll put the water back on.”


“Phil, I heard from Oskar this morning. He'd like you to fly out to San Francisco and talk to John. As you said about my death, there's enough going on without surprising ourselves, and Oskar's worried about him.”

“You live in California, you go.”

“Oskar thinks you're the right person for this.”

“Oskar's just pissed at me.”

“Oskar thinks you've been sitting on the sidelines too long.”

“Oskar is a pain in the ass.”


“Maybe next week, when Ren goes back to work.”


“Oskar can wait.”

“That's not his best game.”

“It's our game. It's the only … Is the water hot?”

“Almost. I was going to make eggs. Phil—”

“I'm staying, Ray. Fuck.”

“Here, give it to me.”

“Fine. The teabags are in the green canister.”

“How many eggs for you?”

“Two, please. I'm going to take Ren her tea.”

My fingers curled around the steaming mug. “Thanks,” I said.

“I thought you were grazing.” Phil's voice was warm as fur.

“Good morning, Ren!” Ramon popped into the living room brandishing a spatula. “Want eggs?”

“Sarah was a morning person?” My voice was ragged.

The dimple beneath Phil's mustache belied the gravity of his accusation. “And a cheerleader.”

“How did you—?” Ramon stood frozen. “That information wasn't in the file. I checked.”

“‘Sitting on the sidelines?' ‘Not Oskar's best game?' Any benign explanation for a sudden use of sports lingo would have been in Catherine's notes.”

“Don't.” The deadly edge in Ramon's voice pierced my mental distance enough to bring me fully present. “Do not ever mention this to Vivian.”

Phil shrugged. “You go see John for me, and I'll never say a word to anyone.”⁠

Neither man moved, and only an Incrementalist would have recognized the silence as the duel it was.

“Ramon,” I said. “Check your eggs.”

His eyes flicked to me and back to Phil, testing my comment as wingman's tactic or sexual reference. Then he smelled them.

“Damn!” He wheeled for the pan. The tension broke; but the eggs were ruined.

8. On the Range

Phil shooed Ramon from the kitchen and took over at the stove.

“I'm glad to see you back with us.” Ramon came into the living room, settling in an uncomfortable wooden chair rather than share the sofa with me. No matter how female his cheerleader's body looked in yoga pants and slippers, Ramon was still Ramon. “I didn't see anything about your experiment on the forums this morning,” he observed, which put Phil on alert again. I heard it in his spatula. I can get a little defensive about how irregularly I check the forum. Ramon was needling me, but it didn't sting.

“Yeah,” I said. “I'll seed it.”

“Seed what?” Phil asked.

“I'm pretty sure I went all the way back to my Primary.”

“What? Just straight back?” Ramon asked.

I nodded, sipping my tea. “All the way home.”

“Without having to go through any sort of system for naming points along the way?”

“Yeah.” I stood up and stretched. “With a symbol.”

“Interesting, a shortcut through the nested dolls of personality and memory.” Ramon pushed hair away from his face with a blunt, graceless shove. “How was it? That far back, even our brains were structured differently.”

“Yeah.” I carried my mug into the kitchen and refilled my cup, which emptied the pot.

“How do you feel?” Phil smiled at me over his shoulder. “Last night …”

“I feel better. Just tired, I think.” I dumped out the filter and grounds, started a new pot, and stood, taking small sips, noticing Phil notice Ramon's new body, and watching Ramon notice Phil watching.

“Ren.” Phil was white and frightened. “You're drinking coffee.”

9. Where Thou Art

Even before the cold tile under my feet and the warmth of Phil's temple pressed against mine had faded, we were in his Garden. He caught my wrist in his hand, and pulled me through his front gate like Lot's wife, or Eurydice, determinedly not looking back. We took a sharp right into grassy hills dotted with windmills, their vast, sail-shrouded arms pointing in circles—my Garden, represented in Phil's. He stopped and turned to me, eyes closed, praying the Fibonacci sequence. I stood still as a pillar of salt.

He opened his eyes and squinted at something near my left cheek. He scanned the space I occupied. He couldn't see me. He folded me against his body, and the stillness of his chest said he was back to zero-plus-one-is-one. I glanced at my shoulder, smushed under my chin by the strength of his arms, and saw through it to the grass.

I pulled away to check the rest of me, and we were back in the kitchen, its counters cluttered with two abandoned breakfasts' worth of pans. I wasn't transparent anymore, but my heart banged big and noisy in my chest, and my stomach shriveled tight.

“Ray!” Phil shouted.

Ray stuck his head and bare shoulders out from the guest bathroom. “I truly loathe mascara,” he said.

I could see why.

“Ren's shading.”

“I'll be right there.” Ramon closed the door.

I trailed Phil into the living room. “What's shading?”

“You should know that!” Phil almost shook me. “Celeste stole her memories from you—fine. But you should have Betsy's and Rachel's before that.”

“Shading—” Ramon had put his sweatshirt back on, but back-to-front and inside out. “Shading happens sometimes when Incrementalistsaredying, and already half in stub. They can appear almost transparent in any Garden but their own.” Ramon steered me to the sofa, and put me next to Phil. The lashes of his left eye made a single globby horn. “They may grow distanced from themselves, uncertain of their identity”—his voice hardened—“unclear about their memories.”

Phil scrubbed his hands through his hair. He snapped an elastic band from around one wrist and twisted it into the brown tangle.

“But I'm not dying,” I said. “I'm distracted. And tired. I've been spending too much time in the Garden, maybe.”

“That is certainly true,” Ramon agreed. “But it's not the point. You're ignoring what you don't want to see.”

Phil reached across the chasm of sofa cushion to take my hand.

“The Garden is very literal.” Ramon's thin voice made a strange contrast to his new full lips. “But it's entirely mental, constructed by, or of, minds, not brains. Shock, or trauma, or illness …”

He waited for me.

I took too long putting it together. “I am not mentally ill.”

Phil kissed my knuckles, but he couldn't meet my eyes. “Something traumatic must have happened to you in the Garden last night. Can you remember?”

“Memory isn't my best game,” I said, but it wasn't funny. “Someone died,” I said, groping.

“One of your Seconds?” Phil asked. “I've had deaths I still can't think about. That happens sometimes, the best—”

“No.” I was searching shadows transparent as my hand. “Not me. I was sad, but not in shock.”

“Do you know where you were?” Ramon asked. “Or when?”

It was odd to see so little emotion in a female face, and I wondered vaguely if Phil's eyebrows had picked up their expressive tricks when he'd had a woman's body.

“Ren, do you know any of the axis points?”

I shook my head.

“Whenever and wherever you went,” Ramon said, “you left some of yourself behind, pinned in place by the emotional impact of whatever happened.”

I laughed. “I've literally lost my mind?”

“Just part of it. And
is imprecise.
, maybe.”

I remembered my parents with their serious faces, my father beside Mom on the sofa, but not next to her. “No, Renee,
ma chere
, not divorced,” he'd insisted with his stupid fake French. “Separated.” But he never came back home.

10. There's No Place

“I'll go with you.” Phil looked at Ramon. “Are you coming?”

It was delivered like a question, but Ramon understood the plea, and stood up. I moved closer to Phil to make room, and Ramon packed in beside me, wrapping his manicured fingers around the back of my neck and pressing the pad of his thumb to my temple. The tag of his sweatshirt looked like a miniature bib, or a priest's collar. Phil cupped my cheek, index finger to my temple, and I closed my eyes, reaching for the funky marsh smell and the idiot taste of root beer.

My Garden manifested around us, featureless and undifferentiated in all directions save one.

“Interesting,” Ramon muttered, moving toward the solitary shadow a few feet away. “A hole on the zaxis. A hole in

“Yeah,” I said.

Phil was counting again.

“Perhaps the problem stems from the extraordinary distance between the
of then and now.” A tiny smile shadowed Ramon'shurriedly lipsticked mouth. “Or perhaps from the space between the
you were and who you are.”

“How about
” Phil asked.

“If Ren went as far as I suspect, even the land and water masses were different.”

“What's that, Lassie?” I joked.“Ren fell down the mindshaft? We'd better get help!”

Phil didn't smile and Ramon didn't notice.

“We don't have to find the memory, just the part of Ren trapped by it.” Ramon's arm caught Phil across the chest. “Don't.”

“I'll jump in and bring her out.”

“That is (a) irrational—we don't know why she got stuck; and (b) reckless—this isn't your Garden; the limits of her imagination limit you.”

“Yeah,” I said. “And I rode the symbol down like an elevator. I don't think you should jump.”

Ramon hadn't said so, but I knew I'd been irrational and reckless too—greedy to turn my deficits and Phil's guilt into something sweet for us all.

“What if you made another symbol?” Phil asked.

Ramon shook his head. “I think we'd have the same problem: too much too fast.”

“Hang on.” I closed my eyes, concentrating hard. Back to basics.
, Phil had told me in helping me find my Garden for the first time, usually ran up and down. Usually. I concentrated and Phil stumbled beside me. Ramon whistled. I opened my eyes, but nothing looked different.

“What did you just do?” Phil looked dizzy.

“She turned the axes,” Ramon marveled. “Time now runs ahead and behind, or to the left and right of us.”

“So where's the hole?” I asked.

“An absence below makes a hole,” Phil figured. “A absence ahead is a vista.”

“No buena vista,” I observed.

Ramon ignored me. “Try picking a point a little bit ahead of you.”

“There's no point.”

Phil turned sharply, but I shook my head. “I don't mean like that. One point of mud looks like every other point.”

“Pick an arbitrary one and focus.” Phil's voice stayed steady, but it was the steady of a man on a surfboard, not a floor. “Do you know what the mud over there is?”

“Same as the stuff under our feet,” I said. “Until I get rid of the extraneous stuff, it isn't anything. It's everything.”

“Can you bring it closer?”

I nodded, already trying. Nothing happened. My Garden stayed exactly the same muddy mess. “Don't force it,” Phil whispered. “It's not a willpower thing.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I know. Willpower I've got.”

“Imagine it.”

“I'm not very good at pretend.”

“Not pretend,” Ramon corrected. “Make believe.”

I refocused on the distant point, made it closer, and believed it.

“Ren.” Phil pointed at a mound in the mud, grinning. “Do it again.”

I did, and time ran like a tablecloth wrinkle before smoothing fingers to pile up at our feet.

“But this is too little too slow,” I said. “I've heaped up maybe a couple of years here. By the time we've raked up just the Celeste years, we'll have a mountain to scale or a canyon to span between us and wherever the rest of me got lost in my Garden.”

“Maybe the problem isn't
,” Ramon suggested.

I went on dragging time into sludgy piles.

“Maybe the problem is
,” Ramon said. “Perhaps the trauma of experiencing a self untranslated over culture and language—across
based on moon and mathematics—separated Ren from herself. Think how much you change in just a single lifetime. You're not the same man you were even a year ago.”

BOOK: Strongest Conjuration
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