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unreliable narrator

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Lucretia: My whole life, I dedicated myself to the study and the service of other people’s discoveries, of other people’s adventures.  I was a supporter.  But one day I made the decision to… stop championing other people’s heroism and to take the direction of my life into my own hands.  And, I lost dear, dear friends because of that decision, but it was the only one to make.  So, I admire your faith, Merle, I do, but I think I’m done waiting on anyone to fix my problems for me.

Merle: … But you gotta stand for something, or you’re gonna fall for anything.  So listen!  You have got faith: it’s faith in you.

(ep 40)

 

i. ascension

 

Lucretia’s first memory is sitting beside her father on a park bench, watching people rushing past.

Her legs dangle into thin air, dancing above a cobblestone pathway.  Her sandals are just clinging on to her stubby feet, tanned one shade darker brown in the violet sun.  Her dress is red, loose around her waist, buttons threatening to pop when she tugs at the hem with one hand.

Lucretia’s father hands her an ice cream cone.  It’s chocolate, cool and rich on her tongue.  Lucretia reaches out one finger of her left hand to poke it – it comes away sticky-sweet.

“Hey.  Hey,” her father says.  “Look at that woman.”

And he points at an old woman in a purple coat that flows well below her knees, trailing a tiny wiener dog behind her.

“What do you think her story is?”

Lucretia looks.  The woman is hunched over, walking as though there’s a pack full of rocks on her back, even though Lucretia doesn’t see anything pushing her down.  And her gait is not entirely steady – she lists ever so slightly to one side, reminding Lucretia of driftwood caught midstream.

“She broke her ankle,” Lucretia tells her father.  “Um, fell down stairs.  She’s old.  Tired.  They didn’t think she’d walk again.”

“But she’s walking now,” her father replies.  “How did she do it?”

“Her dog.”  Lucretia points.  “She has to walk her dog.”

“And someone else in her family couldn’t have done it?” her father counters.  “I’m sure she has kids, grandkids, or at least a helpful nephew.”

Lucretia shakes her head.  “Nobody else knows how her dog only likes to turn right at the end of this street. Or how she has to walk slow so its little legs can keep up. Or to stop and poop on that patch of grass -” (she points) “there, next to that stop sign.”

Her father laughs a little bit at that, his smile opening like the afternoon sun far above them.  “What do you think her dog’s name is?”

Lucretia looks at the woman again – at her purple coat, her black leggings beneath it, her heavy brown shoes with little yellow flowers on top of the laces.

“Daisy,” Lucretia decides.

“Daisy,” her father repeats.  “I like that.”

And then, he points again – to a pair of brothers, tossing a bright orange ball between them as they jog down opposite sides of the path.

“What do you think their story is?”

 

Lucretia is seven when one of her father’s coworkers knocks on the door. She opens it to a grave face, eyes cast down, and a hand clutching his hat over his chest. Somehow, before he even starts to speak, Lucretia knows.

She does not let anyone see her cry.

Instead, she sits at the funeral scribbling in a black leather notebook, her legs dangling, dancing back forth, back forth, beneath a hard wooden chair.  She does not hear a single word of the service – she is too busy writing down the shape of her father’s smile, the taste of the gumbo he always made when she got sick, the last thing he said to her before he left.

 

Lucretia is twelve years old when a boy snatches her notebook after algebra class and holds it aloft like a trophy, ink glittering in faint afternoon sunlight coming through the windows.

She does not cry out but stands quickly - as though hit by an electric shock - and reaches for it, but he is at least half a foot taller.  He holds it easily out of her reach as he reads:

“Ms. Ganeba is wearing a purple cotton shirt today.  It’s long, and floats above her brown clogs like a cloud as she teaches us systems of equations.  Nathaniel isn’t paying attention; he’s watching the actual clouds outside instead because he knows he’ll ace the next test anyway.  (Today, the sky is a shade of purple I’ve never seen before that reminds me of the swimming pool behind the rec center…”

Bradley stops reading, shuts the book with a thump, and looks at Lucretia, his brows furrowed the same way they are when he’s faced with a matrix problem.

She keeps reaching for it, reaching for it, wishing her arms were longer, please the ink hasn’t dried yet

“You’re writing about… us,” he says.  His voice has gone down a level, since he stopped reading.  The few classmates who had paused to see what was going on shrug and head on to lunch.

Lucretia jerks a nod, heart still pounding in her chest.  She makes a grab for the notebook again.

Bradley tosses it in a low arc – for a moment, it hovers in the air, a tiny cloud of letters and ink – and then it falls near the door, binding skewed sideways.  Thump.

“And here I thought it was gonna be something interesting.”

Bradley turns and walks out, with a swagger too embellished for any twelve-year-old.

Lucretia scrambles for the notebook, opens to a new page, and records the encounter – the theft, the reading, the return.

She never makes it to lunch.

 

“I hate you,” Lucretia’s sophomore year roommate moans.

It’s two forty-five in the morning, both of them have final papers due at nine, and Lucretia is scribbling through her fifth page while Deborah is sprawled face-down on her bed, searching a pillow for inspiration.

“Why?” Lucretia asks, not looking up from her notebook.

“You’re so good at writing,” Deborah whines.  “It just… comes naturally to you!  Like, I wish I had that talent.”

Lucretia shakes her head.  “It’s not talent.”

“No, it is, it’s –”

And Deborah trails abruptly off as Lucretia sets her notebook down, slides off her bed, and takes four even steps to her closet.  The door clicks open, revealing a couple shelves crowded with crumpled-up clothes and beneath, stacks of notebooks, mountains of notebooks, oceans of notebooks – each one leather-bound and bursting.

“It’s not talent.”

 

Lucretia is sitting in a coffeeshop hunched over her final paper for Romantic Poetry when she sees her.

That can’t be Angelica Kami.  It can’t.  There’s no way the Pamovar Prize-winning author of six historical fiction novels, eight chapbooks, and nearly a hundred groundbreaking essays on the Elizabethan era - the woman who revolutionized the fundamental methods of history writing would just waltz into a tiny place near some barely-prestigious research university to get a cup of coffee.  The chances of this are basically ten million to one.

And yet… Lucretia keeps peeking over her stack of notebooks and folders and texts, over her empty coffee mugs and scone plates and discarded pens, and every time she looks she becomes a little more convinced.  The woman has that same loose bun coiled at the nape of her neck, that same long nose and half-elven features, that same gold bracelet even, as the picture of Angelica Kami on all of her book jackets.  If this isn’t her, it must be a damned good lookalike.

Well, Lucretia tells herself.  There’s only one way to know for sure.

Lucretia makes a quick trip to the bathroom, pees even though she doesn’t really need to, un-braids and braids her hair four or five times, rereads the naughty limerick someone wrote in orange marker just above the mirror.  And then, she ventures up to the table of a woman who may or may not be Angelica Kami, like an explorer stepping from the deck of their ship to an unpopulated island.

“Hi,” she says.  Her voice is too quiet, squeaky.  “I hope this isn’t too rude of me to ask, but… Are you Angelica Kami?”

The woman puts down her book (an edition of The Albaxy that Lucretia is a little proud of herself for recognizing as an excellent translation), lowers her reading glasses (circular, wire frames, elegant), and surveys Lucretia as though she is a particularly knotty compound sentence.

“I hope it isn’t too disappointing to inform you that, yes, I am.”

Lucretia attempts to pretend that her heart isn’t threatening to burst out of her chest.  She gathers, from the small smile spreading across Angelica Kami’s face, that she has not been particularly successful.

“Why would I be disappointed?” she asks, breathless.  “I’m such a huge fan – I mean, I’ve read all your books, I wrote a paper inspired by your work on Elizabethan arcana, I have so many questions, I wish I had a book with me that you could autograph… why would I be disappointed?”

“Because.”  Angelica Kami sets her reading glasses down – their frames catch the light of a lamp far above, reflecting gold with a hint of emerald green.  “I haven’t published anything in three years.”

“Why would that make me disappointed?” Lucretia presses.  “I know that you can’t rush genius.  Whatever you’re working on, it will turn out amazing.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Angelica Kami replies.  “But I’m afraid the roadblocks in this particular project have been more treacherous than most.  Less like roadblocks, in fact, and more like road avalanches.”

“Tell me about it,” Lucretia says, maybe (definitely) a little too loudly for coffeeshop conversation.  And before she can stop herself – before she can properly think through what she’s doing – she is pulling up a chair and sitting herself down across a tiny coffeeshop table from Pamovar Prize-winning writer Angelica Kami, notebook and pen at the ready.

“What?” the older woman asks.

“Your project,” Lucretia clarifies.  “Tell me about it.  I do this for my friends, when they’re stuck on essays.  I’m good at it.”

For a long, steady moment, Angelica Kami looks at Lucretia, her eyes very dark, almost black, like pools of water late at night.

And then, she says, “Okay.  This project is a memoir.  I have felt – or at least I felt three years ago, when I started trying to write this – that my story was an important one.  For a woman, especially a half-elf woman, from the heart of Vardon, to become as intellectual and as public a figure as I have, is not as absolutely unheard of as it may have been a century ago, but it is still in many ways powerfully unusual.  But I find it so hard to tell the story of how I went from peasant girl to renowned scholar without getting caught up in linguistic analysis, or stories about my best friend growing up, or my mother’s recipe for dumplings – I can’t seem to separate what the world needs to read from what I need to write.  I compose scenes only to cut them out, skip years only to write them in.  I used to be praised for my academic distance, and now I cannot even write a word in my native language without attaching a long string of memories to it.  I have become… unreliable.”

Lucretia looks at Angelica Kami, then down at her notes.  Public - powerfully unusual - academic distance.  Memories.  What the world needs to read, what I need to write.  Unreliable.

“What might the advantages to an unreliable narrator be?” she asks.

Angelica starts to answer, then looks at Lucretia – as though she is a complex compound sentence, or an old pen, or the beginning of a story as yet unwritten.

Instead of answering, she asks, “What’s your name?”

The question is so unexpected that Lucretia almost forgets how to answer.

“Lucretia.”

“Lucretia,” Angelica Kami repeats.  And she pushes her chair back, and stands, and says, “I’m buying you coffee.”

 

Lucretia’s first book deal is a stroke of luck.

The thing she learns quickly about the ghostwriting business is, you can’t get a gig just by asking nicely.  Autobiographies, memoirs, even profiles in well-established magazines... They all take time, and trust.  It’s the literary equivalent of leaping from a five-story building and believing a complete stranger will be there with a few dozen mattresses to catch you at the bottom.

Lucretia does not do the best impersonation of a mattress, but she develops a well-oiled impersonation of a battering ram.  She writes emails to agents and secretaries, she sends off copies of her resume until she has every line memorized, she waits in publicity offices from sunrise to sunset without moving her hands from her lap.

She gets very practiced at drinking coffee.

Finally, a retiring fantasy football player agrees to sit down with her.  More to please his agent than anything else, he says.  Not expecting great things from a wisp of a girl who’s never even been to a game, he says.  What’s the point of writing about yourself when nobody’s going to see you play anymore, he says.

But half an hour later, she’s got him crying over donuts with a question about his grandfather, and he’s ready to take the leap.

Lucretia’s next six book deals are anything but lucky.

 

People ask her, when she tells them what she does for a living, if she minds not having her name on any of her books.  She smiles, and says no – no, as long as stories are being told and people are being remembered, she doesn’t care who knows her name.

It’s not until an interview for a two-month tour of potentially infinite other dimensions that some asks her, if you’re out there telling everyone else’s stories, then who’s going to tell yours?

 

Lucretia spends the first week of IPRE training convinced that she never should have applied for this position in the first place.

New realities to explore - nope.  Potentially infinite wealth of information waiting to be discovered - nah.  The chance to shape a narrative that will change the world’s history forever - hell no.  What she should’ve been considering when she cut that ad out of the newspaper and taped it to her bedroom mirror was that this mission will involve spending two months trapped aboard a ship with six absolute maniacs.

She writes profiles of all of them in her journal, during that first week.  Magnus Burnsides, a human warrior who either wants to punch, high five, or stick in his mouth everything that comes within a ten-foot range of his burly form.  Lup and Taako, a pair of hell-raising elf twins who repeatedly tested off the charts in magical aptitude but seem to care more about looking good than doing anything constructive for anyone, ever.  Merle Highchurch, a dwarven cleric who appears to own an infinite collection of Hawaiian print shirts and has no control over his bodily functions.  Barry Bluejeans (is that his real name? Lucretia has gone through several levels of records with very little success), human engineer and necromancer more comfortable with machines than with people.  And Captain Davenport, a gnome mage who spends more time crafting language to make the mission palatable for the press than actually ensuring his team works well together.

Her first impressions of them are bad.  Her ongoing impressions, as Davenport forces the team through team building exercises, physical training sessions, and a couple of particularly disastrous ice cream socials, are worse.  Taako deliberately lets Lucretia go during a round of trust falls, then casts slow fall at the last second before her head hits the ground.  Lup ties her braids together during a round of Human Knot.  Merle farts right next to her at the very beginning of a two-hour session on IPRE protocol.  Magnus offers a high five at the end of a mile run, and her palm is scorched red for the rest of the day.  (She just considers herself lucky that she already has an apartment near the IPRE headquarters and didn’t need to take their subsidized housing - living with these idiots must be even worse.)

The list goes on.  Lucretia’s only quiet moments during the whole ordeal are at meals, when she can hole up at a small, circular table in the corner of the IPRE cafeteria and read a couple of chapters of her book.  She looks forward to it all day - an hour when she can breathe easy, rest her mind, not talk to anyone.

And then, one lunch period, Lucretia is interrupted from her chicken pesto sandwich by the approach of none other than Barry Bluejeans.

“Hey,” he says.  “Mind if I sit?”  He gestures at the space next to her with his tray, currently loaded up with a hamburger, chips, and an entire bowl full of dill pickle slices.

Lucretia does mind.  She does very much mind.  But she can’t quite bring herself to voice a dismissal - instead she shrugs and lowers her book, marking her spot with a slip of paper ripped from an informative pamphlet on planar physics they received the first day.

Barry slides onto the bench, then lifts an eyebrow above his large square glasses when he notices her book.

“Is that good?” he asks.  “I’ve read some of Purcell’s other stuff and really liked it, but that one seems to be getting kind-of mixed reviews.”

Lucretia stares at him for a moment.  Barry Bluejeans, necromancer and engineer, top of his class at the Academy of Sciences, reads Purcell?  He doesn’t match her gaze, instead absorbing himself in piling pickle slices on his hamburger.

“I’m enjoying it so far,” Lucretia says.  “His writing is gorgeous as ever - even in translation, you can really see the mastery in how careful he is with language, although I want to read it in the original someday.  I’m not sure I like the main character, though.  She feels a bit… empty.”

Barry nods.  He replaces the lid of his burger and takes a bite - pickle juice is dripping down the side of his mouth when he replies, “I have to ask - how do you feel about the sex scenes?  Everyone I know either loves them or hates them, and I’m curious about the opinion of an actual lit major.”

“I - wait.”  Lucretia pauses, looks at him quizzically.  “How did you know I was a lit major?”

“Oh, like you didn’t look up the records on every other member of this team the minute we got the roster,” Barry replies, grinning at her amiably.  “I read your thesis, actually.  Super interesting stuff, though I thought your conclusion pushed too far into the hypothetical.”

Lucretia takes a bite of her sandwich, chews slowly, and swallows before answering.  “My advisor said that, too.  But I think lit papers are a waste if you don’t take your ideas as far as they’ll go.  And to answer your question, I skip the sex scenes when I read Purcell.  I don’t think they’re particularly well written, and they don’t contribute to the narrative at all.  They’re just weird.”

“Not as weird as some of the members of this IPRE team,” Barry says.  “Especially those twins - I swear, they’re like fictional characters that some batshit writer magic’ed into three dimensions.”

“Really?” Lucretia wonders, leaning forward.

“Oh, yeah.  Have you ever listened to them talk to each other?  It’s all, ‘Taako, did you steal my leopard-print knee-high socks?’  ‘No, Lulu, I burned them, because you got cum all over my cashmere blanket when you fucked the rear admiral.’ ‘I said I was sorry!’”

Barry’s imitation of the twins’ voices is surprisingly on point, all long vowels and emotional rises, and Lucretia laughs almost in spite of herself.  He grins back at her - it’s a nice smile, sunny and warm.

“You do ghost-writing, right?” Barry asks.

Lucretia nods.

“Then you should get those elves to agree to a memoir deal now, before someone else snatches them up.  They’re gonna be famous someday.”

After that, Lucretia stops bringing a novel to training, and starts bringing a journal.

 

It’s a cold day in late fall when Lucretia knocks on the door of Captain Davenport’s office.

He lets her in, closes his book, lowers his reading glasses.  She notices, not for the first time, how short he is - it would take three of him to match up to her height.

“Lucretia,” he says, sitting back down behind his desk and motioning her to the hardwood chair in front of it.  “What can I do for you?”

Lucretia does not sit.  She stays standing, her hands knotted together behind her back and her spine ramrod-straight.  She clears her throat.

“With all due respect, sir, I don’t think your training program thus far has been effective.”

Davenport blinks at her slowly.  He pulls his reading glasses off entirely, sets them on top of a stack of manuscripts on his desk.

“Please elaborate.”

“Well, ah.”  Lucretia wrote a speech, two nights ago.  She prepared arguments, counterarguments, statistics, elaborations.  She practiced it in front of her mirror this morning, and then again for the others at training - Taako suggested she lead with a joke, then Magnus and Merle proceeded to offer suggestions, and Barry pointed out a place where she ended a sentence with a preposition instead of actually offering anything constructive - but she felt confident enough about it.  She felt like she could do this.

It stands to reason that now, confronted with her captain’s raised eyebrows and unwavering attention, she would feel about two feet tall.  Lucretia breathes in, breathes out.  Wills her heartbeat steady.  She is prepared - she wrote this down.

“Your training program is universal,” she says.  “Each of the six crew members for the Starblaster mission has been required to complete the same activities: physical workouts, learning the technical aspects of the Starblaster’s operation, crash courses in biology, techniques for effective data recording, and so on.  But these are all areas in which one or more of us is already familiar - Barry knows how the ship works, Merle knows biology, I know writing, Magnus is basically a tank, and so on.  It makes no sense to train us in these areas when we are already a crew of experts.  We were selected because we were the best in our respective fields, so continued work in those fields is a waste of the IPRE’s time and effort.”

Davenport looks at her, as though to check that she’s finished speaking, then says, “You weren’t selected because you’re the best in your respective fields.”

Lucretia has written arguments, counterarguments, elaborations - but she has not prepared for this.

“What?”

“Did you really think that you, a twenty-six-year-old ghost writer barely known outside the publishing world, were the applicant with the best note-taking abilities?” Davenport asks.  He shakes his head, then adds, “I apologize, that was crass.  But let me ask you this: what similarities have you noticed between yourself and the other crew members?  Think beyond individual aptitudes.”

Lucretia thinks.  Taako, Lup, Magnus, Merle, Barry.  Herself.  It’s been several weeks now - she’s seen them solve puzzles, fight simulations, work through challenges.  She’s eaten lunch with them, and hustled losers at pool with them, and gotten drunk with them.  She’s heard all of their stories. (“Why are you on this mission?” was the number one icebreaker question for a few days, before they realized they were all bad at answering it.)

“We’re all young,” Lucretia says.  “At least relatively - Taako and Lup are young for elves, and Merle is still in his first century.”

Davenport nods.  “What else?”

“We all have… relatively few ties to this world,” she goes on.  “Mostly kids of single parents, or estranged from their families.  We’re all quick learners.  Good at problem solving, especially when it means creative solutions.  We’re all independent.  We all really, really want to know what’s out there.”

Davenport keeps nodding, with each additional sentence.  Then, he says, “That’s all true.  So then, why might I want to train you in each other’s fields?”

When they did a five-mile obstacle course a few mornings ago, Magnus lifted all the others over a high ledge.  Before a test for the biology course, Merle taught everyone a mnemonic device for the basic principles of ecology.  Taako transmuted a pitcher of icy (and spiked) lemonade after a long afternoon of sprints.  Lup demonstrated how to make a fire without matches or spell slots during their woods survival weekend.  Barry insisted they all go out for drinks after training each Friday until it became an established habit.

“We’re all teaching each other,” Lucretia realizes aloud.  “You want us to rely on each other and work as a team.”

“Exactly,” Davenport says.  “This mission is going into the unknown - we have literally no idea what’s out there.  So, I need a crew of people who can survive on their own, but can also work as a team to solve larger problems.  You all need to be trained together so that you can all trust each other.  To address your initial statement: I have certainly not been as transparent as I could have been in the motivation behind your training, but I believe it has been more effective than you realize.”

“Yeah,” Lucretia replies.  “I mean - yes, sir.”

Davenport smiles - a kind smile that reminds her of grandfather figures in old books - and picks up his reading glasses.

“It’s always a pleasure to talk to you, Lucretia,” he says.  “Let me know if you have any other concerns.”

 

Lucretia’s mother doesn’t want her to go on the IPRE mission.

Actually, “doesn’t want” is a rather tame way to put it.  Lucretia’s mother shows up on her doorstep the night before the ship is scheduled to take off, makeup smudged and hair askew and two non-matching slippers on her feet.  She is there, standing slumped and shaking, when Lucretia arrives home from the crew’s bar trip (and subsequent fight).

Lucretia stops - four steps away from the doorknob but close enough to notice a hint of red to her mother’s eyes, almost as though she’s been crying – which is impossible, because her mother never cries.

(She also notices that she’s a couple of inches taller than her mother, now.  Gods, when did that happen?)

“Please say you were going to tell me,” Lucretia’s mother says.  She sounds frantic and shaking and just this side of sobbing.  “Please say you wrote me one of your exhaustive letters and it must’ve gotten lost in the mail.  Or you kept calling when I was out and you didn’t know how to explain in a message.  Or you were going to pay me a really early visit tomorrow morning.”

“Mom,” Lucretia says.  She takes a step forward, but her mother holds up a hand.

“Please say you were going to tell me before you left this plane of existence to go on a two-month journey outside the boundaries of reality.”

“Mom, I…”

Lucretia is so good at words.  She surrounds herself with words, suffocates herself with words.  She should know what to say right now.  What was the point of choosing her for that mission if she wasn’t going to know what to say?

“Mom, how…”

“I saw the broadcast,” her mother goes on, voice loud and shaking - a sound foreign enough that Lucretia is shocked into action – four steps forward key in the lock pushing her too-short mother inside before the whole neighborhood hears them yelling.  “Anne’s place was playing it, and I thought I’d go watch, find out something about these mysterious seven explorers and their trip to the unknown, maybe learn something interesting.  Imagine my surprise when I saw my own daughter up there.  And she hadn’t even told me she was going!”

“Mom, I’m sorry, I was going to –”

“No, you weren’t.”  Her mother drops onto Lucretia’s couch – it sags beneath her weight, green and softened by more wine stains than Lucretia would like to admit she has counted.  Lucretia flicks on the overhead light, just out of habit, and nearly steps back at the darker flush on her mother’s cheeks – gods, has she been drinking?

“If you were going to, you would have told me before now.  I don’t know what I did to make you hide things from me like this – I looked up your profile, Anne’s daughter helped me, and I saw you’ve been writing articles under your own name, you’ve been learning magic, you’ve been teaching a writing seminar at the Academy, and now for the past, what, three months you’ve been training for this mission and haven’t breathed a word to me… Do I even know anything about you anymore?”

“Mom, I’m sorry, I just didn’t…” Lucretia steps forward slowly, as though approaching a first-year who just got back her first failed paper, then drops onto the couch next to her mother.  A wall of books stares back at her – four shelves of volumes printed carefully and organized cautiously, all lined up alphabetically by author’s last name, and two shelves of leather-bound notebooks, ink spilling out.

“I didn’t want to do more than he did, or become more than he was.  I didn’t want you to think I was overstepping.  But then I saw the application for this mission, and I knew, I knew they’d need someone to write everything down, to shape the history, to ask the questions, and I couldn’t not step up.  But I still couldn’t… I’m sorry.”

“Oh, baby.”

And Lucretia’s mother’s arms are around her, warm and strong and smelling faintly of cinnamon.  If she were to write about this, she’d write about the day a usually-friendly man came to the door with a grave look on his face, or the day a journal flew out of her hands and into the river, or the day she received her university acceptance letter.  But she is not writing about this.  She is living it – her mother’s arms and the wetness on her cheeks and the metallic clink of earrings as both of them start to shake.

“You know that you succeeding is like him succeeding,” Lucretia’s mother says, pulling back to hold Lucretia at arm’s length, her face stern but her eyes still red.  “Because you’ve got all the best parts of him.  All the best parts.”

“It’s only for two months,” Lucretia says.  “And we’re going to learn so much, Mom.  This mission is going to change the course of this world forever.”

“I know, baby.  I know.”  And Lucretia’s mother pulls her in, hugs her again.

They spend the night like that, curled up together on Lucretia’s too-soft couch.  In the morning, Lucretia’s mother braids her hair, slow and careful, as Lucretia tells her about the ship, and her crewmates, and the uniforms, and how she’s bringing fifty new journals, just in case.

And just before Lucretia needs to leave or she absolutely will miss her own mission, she goes up to her bookshelf, reaches beneath the four shelves of volumes she didn’t write to the two shelves of volumes she did, and pulls out one.  Brown leather, binding held together by glue and thread, a single word etched into the cover.  Father.

“I was going to tell you,” Lucretia says.  “This morning, before I left, I was going to send you this, and I was going to tell you.”

Her mother looks at Lucretia for a long moment, then pulls her in close.

“Then tell me one more thing,” she says.

“Anything, Mama.”

“Tell me you’ll come home.”

Her arms are warm and strong and smell faintly of cinnamon.

“I’ll come home,” Lucretia promises.

 

The others had made fun of her, for bringing along fifty notebooks.

Magnus had warned her that piles of books are easily spilled during in-flight maneuvers.  Lup had asked if she can take a few to use for planning outfits.  Barry had earnestly wondered if Lucretia was planning on writing so large that a single word fills each page.  Taako had informed her that he can always transmute more journals on the condition that she write exclusively about how amazing he is.  Merle had said if the trip somehow runs out of toilet paper, he knows where he’s going for refills.  Even Davenport had kindly reminded her of the limited amount of storage space available on the ship.

The teasing got to be so much, Lucretia had started to wonder if, maybe, she shouldn’t have brought quite so many.  Maybe if she bought journals of a wider size, or limited herself to a few pages a day, or separated out writing from sketches, she wouldn’t need to take up so much space.  She shouldn’t have brought so many notebooks.

And then, her world is swallowed up by a living black hole, and she thinks, no.

She should have brought more.

 


 

ii. preservation

 

Magnus is the one who finds her.

She’s sitting in the belly of the ship, has been for four days, surrounded by a pile of notebooks and a pot of coffee that she asked Taako to enchant before he went off to study meerkats or something, so that it would automatically refill whenever she emptied it.  The metallic floor is cold and hard beneath her, and the light from a single lamp is dim and flickering, like a single firefly in a sea of darkness.  It’s uncomfortable – and she could have brought a desk and chair from her room upstairs, maybe she should have, but she likes the uncomfortable, likes the darkness, likes how it reflects the urgency of her mission.

She is almost through her third notebook, listing the names of the farmers at her neighborhood’s weekly market and which produce each of them sold, when Magnus bursts into the room with a grin on his face, waving a branch of berries around as though he just discovered fire.

“Lucretia!  Luce!  I just found these sick berries – they taste like blueberries that ate only raspberries that had sex with strawberries, seriously, it’s like a berry orgy up in here, and – wait.  What are you doing?”

“Writing,” Lucretia answers.  Her voice is raspy, lower than usual – it takes a second for her to realize that this is because she hasn’t used it in days.

“Writing…” Magnus repeats.  He looks around, taking in her pile of notebooks, her single lamp, her magically refilling coffeepot.  “Wait.  Lucretia.  Have you used up three books already?”

She nods, holding up her current book to show him that yes, the pages are full, and yes, her handwriting is a sane, human size.  Her wrist aches a little, when she does.  That’s new.

“But… we haven’t even been here a week.  What have you been writing?”

“Our world,” Lucretia explains.  She sets her current notebook down, folding down a page to mark her spot.  “Everything I can remember.”

Magnus looks again at Lucretia’s piles of notebooks, her lamp, her coffeepot.  He sits down beside her, just close enough that their knees are brushing.

“Lucretia,” he says, uncharacteristically careful.  “When is the last time you ate something?”

She thinks about it – and realizes that it’s probably not a good sign, that she needs to think about it.  “I brought down some bread and a few apples, when I first started working.”

“When was that?”

“I think… five days ago.”

“Lucretia.”

“I need to write everything down,” she says, standing up – the floor sways gently beneath her, as though the ship is somehow floating on an ocean.  “I need to remember.  Someone needs to remember, or it will be like none of it ever existed.”

Magnus stands up quickly and puts a hand on her back – warm, steady, smelling slightly of tree bark and wet moss.  “You can’t remember every single detail, though,” he tells her.  “And you can’t kill yourself trying – if you do, who will record our mission?”

Somehow, that one question, that one not particularly eloquent question from a man who is basically a personified high five, who personally admitted that he’s nearly failed every literature course he’s ever taken, is enough for Lucretia to leave the bottom of the ship, go upstairs, and eat some dinner.  (Magnus persuades Lup and Taako to make her some pasta, and it is the best pasta she has ever tasted in her entire life.)

And when she returns to her notebooks and single lamp and coffeepot the next morning, Magnus follows her.

“I don’t know that many details about our world,” he says, “but I remember a lot of military history.  Does that help?”

Lucretia smiles, and hands him a notebook.

 

It makes sense, that Magnus is the first to die.

The thought springs to Lucretia’s mind unbidden as she watches him cut down, the darkness turning him to shadow like a wooden mannequin burning into ash.  The scene plays like one of her favorite epic poems: the reckless soldier, bright-eyed and sturdy-limbed, giving his life for his cause.  Her eyes are dry as she details his descent in her journal, chronicling each slash of his axe and each roar of his voice.

She hopes this is how she will remember him – how all of them will remember him.  His body falls to shadow, melts to a glittering chasm of green and blue and red, shining even in the darkness.

For a moment, his silhouette resembles that of a massive bear.

(And then the ship races through the black and the light stitches him back together – black eye and red jacket and feet planted firmly on the deck – and this is nothing like one of Lucretia’s epic poems, and it is everything like one of Lucretia’s epic poems.  She has never been one for physical contact, but she is caught in the irrevocable urge to run and embrace him.)

 

Someone is crying.

Lucretia recognizes the sounds from the hallway, tiptoeing back to her room after a late night of writing.  The choked sobs, the half-coughs, the faint sniffles.  She wonders, for a moment, if she’s fallen into a dream, or a portal to fifteen years ago – fifteen years and a tiny house with too-thin walls and a too-big dinner table – but no.  A quick glance at the thick metal around her, the cold floors beneath her, reaffirms that she is aboard the Starblaster.  Her second cycle of who knows how many.  And someone is crying.

Only she, Lup, and Barry are aboard the ship right now – Davenport and Merle had gone off looking for the Light, and Magnus and Taako are helping direct a revolution against some totalitarian dictator – and Lup went to bed hours ago, complaining of a headache.  Process of elimination leaves only Barry.

Lucretia takes a few steps towards Barry’s door, the green-painted wood covered in IPRE banners and signs from some high school Fantasy Mathlete competitions.  The noise gets louder.

She’s never been good at comforting people.  Junior year of college, her roommate’s dog died, and all Lucretia could think to do was rubbing her back like a child who needed to burp, and saying over and over that Mulberry was in a better place now.  All Lucretia knows how to do is what she’s read.

For five minutes, she stands outside Barry’s door.  A ghost in a loose red robe and shoes one size too big.  And then, she goes back to the hold and takes out one journal, empty and fresh, still smelling faintly of just-printed ink.

Lucretia jots down a quick note to stick on the cover:

Write what you remember of home,
Wherever this strange ship may roam.
I know it really sucks,
That all we know is fucked,
But at least you’re still here to keep tomes.

She places the book on his doorstep, knocks on the door – two sharp raps – then returns to her own room before he can see her.  But the next morning he smiles at her, tired and red-rimmed, and she knows he got the message.

 

The eleventh cycle is a tough one.

It’s a world of extremes, dense rainforests and scorching deserts, hulking warlords who roar kill on sight and tiny villages who will give complete strangers a week’s supply of water even though they barely have the supplies to feed themselves.  The crew splits into teams to look for the Light, hoping to narrow its location down from the wide triangle Barry tracked it into, and Lucretia winds up working with Lup.

It never took Lucretia long to differentiate between the twins.  Three weeks of training, and she could tell - not just by the colors of their hair (Lup’s started as turquoise, Taako’s a deep orange) or the shapes of their shoes (Taako tended to opt for heels, Lup for boots) but by the way they smiled when Merle made a dirty joke (Lup wide and smirking, Taako sideways with his chipped front tooth just visible), and the way their voices sounded when they were proud (Taako’s slightly squeaky, Lup’s loud and deep).  But after a month of hidden trails and campfire experimentations and getting lost in the middle of the desert, Lucretia starts to learn more.  She starts a second journal, just for different tenors in Lup’s voice: joking, confident, gentle.

Lucretia is halfway to convincing Lup to write down her aunt’s secret s’more recipe when they are cornered - caught up against a cliff, raging river beneath them and band of mercenaries behind.

Lup pulls out her wand like revealing an extra limb - casts firebolts and vines and waves of force - casts herself a self-contained hurricane, wild and cackling - but this is more warriors than they’re ever faced  on their own before this is an army an armada an avalanche - this is crowding up against the cliff and no way out this is -

Lucretia looks to her left - there’s a trail winding down the mountainside, overgrown with moss and tree branches but doable, certainly doable, if something can distract the soldiers long enough to give them some leeway -

Lucretia looks to her right - Lup is nodding at her grinning - holding out her arm to cast another firebolt -

Lucreita looks to her right.  The world stops spinning, just for a second.

Lup mouths, go.

(This is nothing like one of Lucretia’s epic poems, and it is everything like one of Lucretia’s epic poems.  When she writes this story, it is with shaking hands by a solitary fire that Lup taught her how to light, wiping her eyes every few words to keep the ink from blurring.)

 

When Lucretia returns to the Starblaster, three impossible weeks later, she goes first to Taako.  She looks at him - and she knows how her father’s friend felt, that day when he came to her doorstep hat in hand.

(It takes Magnus, Merle, and Barry combined to prevent him from firing magic missile at himself right then and there.  Lucretia does not help them.)

 

“I want your help with something,” Merle says.

It’s their seventeenth cycle, and Lucretia has a fairly efficient system for documentation by now.  Half a notebook for a world’s most notable flora, half for fauna, one for information on the anatomy and physiology of any and all sentient species, one with facts on history and culture, one on physical geography, and so on until she runs out of time.  It’s a good system, as far as collecting detail goes, and it lends Lucretia a sense of urgency to remember that, in a year, her notes could be the only record of this entire plane.

But now, Merle is telling her he wants to conduct oral history interviews.  He wants to ask these robots questions about their past lives, their families, their friends, and he wants her to write everything down.

“That’s not very efficient,” Lucretia tells him.  “There’s no way we’ll be able to get everyone before the year’s up.  I have a system –”

“No offense, Lucretia, but nobody is gonna want to read notes from your system,” Merle cuts her off, blunt as always.  “You just write down facts and details.  What we can learn from talking to these people, really talking to them, is stories.  And stories are interesting.”

Lucretia remembers a little girl with her notebook thrown to the ground, determined to keep writing – and she remembers an interview in a coffeeshop, leaning into unreliable.

“Okay,” she says.  “Oral history.  Let’s do it.”

 

The first time Lucretia runs out of notebooks, she freezes for a second, then leaps into action.

She spends several hours creating an organizational system – stacking her books by year, by subject, by scribe.  (Taako and Lup had filled one with recipes, Merle filled three with details on their home world’s plant life, Magnus had filled two with military history, including maps and diagrams composed from memory, Barry had filled one with a combination of engineering advancements and snippets of his favorite piano compositions, Davenport had even filled one with the history of the IPRE.)  She finds a spare page in one of Magnus’ books and meticulously explains her system, so that she can find any information she needs later.

She falls asleep surrounded by her personal library, trying not to think about how she’s going to convince herself that all of this is real when she isn’t able to write it down.

And then, when she wakes up, there are a hundred new notebooks stacked up around her – all bound in black leather, all single lined, all the perfect size to fit in her lap – with fifty new pens to match.  On top of the tallest stack is a note:

Dedicate one of these to my rad sense of style.  – TT

 

(The second time Lucretia runs out of notebooks, she composes an ode to Taako’s bedazzled tank top collection and he transmutes her two hundred new ones.)

 

It’s around halfway through their year on the beach world that the crew of the Starblaster throws their best party yet.

They’ve come up with a pretty good system over the past few cycles, owing no small amount of thanks to Lucretia’s meticulous recording of their party planning system.  Taako and Lup are always in charge of food, of course, and they learn after a few rounds that it’s best for Magnus to be in charge of drinks, because he procures just enough to get them all in a comfortable partying place but not so much that nobody is functional the next day.  Barry controls the music, or at least makes a playlist (that he often lets Lup mess with, much to Taako’s annoyance).  Merle is in charge of directing dancing.  (Lucretia hears from Taako who heard from Barry who heard from someone back at the Academy that Merle has one thousand, nine hundred, and ninety-nine party points, and Lucretia was skeptical at first, but she’s seen the dwarf in action enough now to believe it.)  The decorations are more of a collaborative effort: Taako and Lup together can construct enough tiki torches to light several hundred square feet of beach, Merle casts a spell to keep the sand from growing too cold, and Magnus hangs streamers that swing back and forth in the breeze.

Lucretia is in charge of documentation, because Magnus didn’t tear his shirt off with a particularly successful flex and sprint yodeling into the surf if nobody can read a vivid word picture of it the next morning.  Davenport is usually on sober duty – i.e. making sure nobody pukes on an important piece of machinery or accidentally insults Lup’s shoes.

The operative word in that last one being usually, because the Starblaster’s noble captain definitely is not sober tonight.  Lucretia isn’t sure what it was (is it a gnome holiday none of them know about?  did somebody dare him?  was Magnus’ moonshine somehow more tempting?) and she’s regretting not asking earlier, because Davenport is standing on top of a picnic table and gyrating his hips as though this is an Academy end-of-semester party and he’s a first-year trying to get laid for the first time.

Lucretia’s pen is moving almost faster than her somewhat wobbly mind can keep up, trying to capture every discernible detail of this wildly inappropriate experience, when a new development makes her drop her pen with a soft clink: Merle jumps up and joins him.

It happens as though in flashes of an old-school projection spell: Merle and Davenport on top of a table.  Merle and Davenport dancing on top of a table.  Merle and Davenport making out on top of a table.  To the tune of Darude Sandstorm, no less.

Magnus lets out an impressively high-pitched shriek for someone his size.

“No, no, you can’t do that,” Taako wails.  “You’re our dads.  This is, like, destroying our whole family dynamic.”

Davenport pulls back from sucking dwarf face for a second to declare, “We’re not the only two members of this crew to have gotten more physically acquainted.”  And he goes back in, this time with tongue.

Now, Barry is the one to shriek.  Lup reaches over to cover his eyes.

“If you don’t believe me, check the notes,” Davenport shouts, another painfully long few seconds later.  “Tell ‘em, Lucretia.”

“Yeah, tell ‘em, Lucretia,” Merle echoes, before tugging his captain down off the table and back towards the Starblaster.

And now, all eyes are on Lucretia.  Great.

“Well,” she says slowly, starting to tick numbers off her fingers.  “Lup and Barry made out a little bit down the beach after our last party, and before that during that party in cycle ten.  Magnus and Taako made out a few cycles ago because they got really bored one afternoon.   Lup and Magnus have kissed a couple of times, although three of those four were accidents when Magnus tried to help Lup with cooking.  And I have it on good authority that Barry and Taako hooked up at an IPRE party way back before we were selected for this mission.”

For a moment, the room is silent.  Even the music has been turned off, which Lucretia does not particularly appreciate – this is awkward enough already.

Finally, Barry speaks up.

“Lucretia… how do you know all of this?”

She shrugs.  “It’s my job.  I’ve got it all recorded on a chart in one of my journals.”

“Wait a second,” Taako says.  “Does this mean I’m only one degree of separation away from my sister?  Through two different people -”

“Taako,” Barry interrupts, “you promised me nobody else knew about that engineering rager -”

Suddenly all the boys in the room are talking at once, accusing each other or Lucretia or each other and Lucretia, she’s not entirely sure.  She feels surrounded, or swallowed, or suffocated – too many words given three dimensions –

“Guys,” Lup shouts.  “GUYS!”

The boys shut up.

“You’re all ignoring the crucial piece of information in this puzzle,” she says.  “Among all the platonic – and somewhat non-platonic – making out –” she winks at Barry, who flushes something fierce – ”nobody has gotten up close and personal with our chronicler herself.  Is that true, Luce?”

Lucretia shrugs.  “I suppose.  I’d never really thought of it that way.”

“But, wait, Lucretia…” Lup takes a step towards Lucretia, then pauses, as though approaching an unidentified magical object that, if she’s not careful, just might explode.  “Lucretia.  You’ve kissed other people before, right?”

Lucretia thinks back.  Surely she must have, at some party at the Academy, or at the Institute, or somewhere in the past thirty-odd cycles of crossing planes… But the more she considers it, the more sure she is that she hasn’t.  Kissed anyone.  Or, really, wanted to kiss anyone.  It was just never a priority, compared to her classes or her career or her desire to tell stories.

Lup must see this realization dawn on Lucretia’s face, because she lets out a particularly loud gasp.  “Oh, babe.  You know you’re a very desirable lady, right?”

“Super desirable,” Magnus agrees.

“Yeah, like, I’m gay as all hell, and even I can see it,” Taako chimes in.

“I know,” Lucretia says quietly.  “I mean – that’s not the issue.  I’ve just never really seen the appeal.  Of kissing.  Sex.  Romance.  All that stuff.”

Lup takes one step closer and says, soft and gentle, “Want to give it a try?”

Lucretia figures, well, she should at least be able to write about this.  So she nods, and lets Lup take another step, and another step, until her breath is wafting into Lucretia’s, and she’s cupping Lucretia’s cheek in one hand, and she’s leaning in so slow so slow –

It’s… very wet.  Very warm.  A little slimy.  It reminds Lucretia of that one time she tried eating eel.

And then Lup slips in something Lucretia realizes is her tongue, and that’s just too much.

She steps back, startled like the Starblaster making a sharp turn, then apologizes – she doesn’t really know what protocols are associated with kissing, but she’s pretty sure that was rude.

“It’s all cool, babe,” Lup says, bringing up a hand to swipe at her lips.  “You’re not into it – that’s chill.”

“You’re missing out, I think,” Taako adds, “but we can’t fault you for what you’re into – or I guess, in this case, not into, m’dude.”

Lucretia swipes a hand across her eyes, not quite sure why.  Some time in between Lup’s statement and Taako’s, she started grinning, and now she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to stop.

“Hey, um,” she says, “this might sound dumb, but… Could we all go and, and, play cards or something?”

“Not dumb at all,” Lup says.

“Yeah, that sounds great!” Magnus exclaims.

“I’m gonna kick your ass,” Barry tells Taako.

And they go back to the Starblaster, and they play Blackjack.  Lucretia wins every round.

 

There is something about the cave of the floating jellyfish that feels familiar.

It’s not the twisting and turning of the passageways, not the crystals along the walls shining like too-close stars, not the careful defensiveness of the creatures themselves.  They remind Lucretia of a story she transcribed once, when she interviewed a wildlife photographer for a prestigious nature journal several lifetimes ago.  This photographer spent two years tracking a herd of large, wooly creatures (and Lucretia could kick herself, now, for being unable to remember the animal’s name), tracing them carefully through plains and across rivers but being foiled every time she got close.  She didn’t succeed until she realized that the creatures would come to her, if she only stood calm and quiet and read them a story.

Magnus leads Lucretia through the mountain into the fish’s central cavern, and she pulls out a notebook without stopping to think about it.  She starts describing the glow of the walls and the cool of the air and the colors of the fish, starts a sketch of the baby that seems to have taken a liking to Magnus, but then the man nudges her in the shoulder, just beneath the edge of her robe.

She looks up, and there are creatures approaching her.  Not all of them, not even most of them – just a few, faint blue and green and pink beating from inside their translucent bodies, like the crystals in the walls or the stars in the night sky except alive.

“They want to know what you’re writing,” Magnus says, in something that attempted to be a whisper and drastically failed.

Lucretia looks at the fish, and thinks of those wooly creatures, a lifetime ago.  She wonders if the fish can hear how loudly her heart is beating as she lifts up her notebook, slowly flips through the pages.  She wonders if they would understand, if she read her narratives aloud.

Something about this cave, about these creatures, feels so familiar.  It hangs onto Lucretia like the baby fish holding tight to Magnus’ shoulder, a nagging sensation at the back of her mind, until one of the fishes splashes her and a bit of water (or ink, or both) gets into her mouth.

And suddenly she knows – she knows.  This is what felt familiar.

It tastes awful and smells even worse, like a cross between expired milk and somebody’s puke, and Lucretia is babbling something about the taste and Magnus is offering some explanation in return, but it’s impossible to focus on those words when her mind is so full.  She hears a thousand melodies - a love song a song immortalizing sunrise a tribute to a favorite dog - reads a thousand lines of poetry - village market in the morning scene of a mountain lake the feeling of flying - smells a thousand delicious meals - grilled sausages perfectly proportioned bruschetta blueberry chocolate chip pancakes - sees a thousand painstakingly crafted sculptures – two women embracing a general leading her army to victory a child pointing at the sky -  it’s as though she has been dropped into the center of a hurricane, if the rain and wind and sky are all distinct works of art.  All pieces of stories, pieces of people’s hearts, cut out and reshaped and given to this sacred mountain.

Lucretia reaches for her notebook – she has to write all this down, she has to write all of this down, someone needs to remember – but then she looks again at the fish who splashed her.  It flashes back at her quietly, red and red and red, as though winking.  And perhaps, she thinks, perhaps she doesn’t have to write all of this down.

Perhaps there is more than one way of remembering a story.

 

Sometimes, Lucretia goes up to the deck of the Starblaster at night and watches the stars.

She goes when she cannot sleep or cannot write, goes when she closes her eyes and sees the Hunger swallowing her home like a pebble falling down a well.  She sits on the cold, hard floor, opens one of her notebooks at random, and begins to read aloud.  Sometimes it’s snippets of literature she remembered from home, sometimes it’s descriptions of other worlds she’s visited, sometimes it’s stories about her mother.  Whatever it is, her voice always sounds slightly different when she reads – slightly lower, or more echoing, as though projected back to her from a great distance.

One night, as she’s reading through something Barry wrote on the mechanics of a combustion engine, Taako sits down next to her.

He opens a jar of moonshine, probably “borrowed” from Magnus’ not-so-secret stash beneath his bed, and motions for her to keep reading.  But once she reaches the end of the page, she shuts the book and turns to him.  His features are different in the twilight – longer, or maybe sharper, as though he’s melting into his shadow.

“Do you think the stars are the same?” Lucretia asks him.

“The same as what?” Taako wonders.  He offers her the moonshine, and Lucretia takes a swig before responding.  It burns going down, but it’s an electric burn - like swallowing a star.

“As our home.  I’ve tried to draw maps of what the sky looked like, a few times, but it never seems quite right, and I keep wondering.”

Taako shakes his head, lets out a low whistle.  “I’m just impressed that you ever think about home, bubeleh.”

“You don’t?”

He takes another drink, longer this time.  “I don’t see a point.  We crushed that world, y’know?  The seven of us, we were chosen for this mission because we’re the best of it.”

“Davenport once told me that we were chosen because we were young and full of potential,” Lucretia replies.

Taako hands her the jar, then, once it’s safely out of his hands, bursts into laughter.  “And you believed him?”

Lucretia shrugs.  She takes another sip, then cradles the jar in her palms.

“No, we’re - we’re the best,” Taako says.  “The youngest and the cleverest.  The ones who’ll look prettiest on the IPRE posters.  Whatever - we’re who that world wanted to represent it out here.”

“How can we represent it without remembering it?” Lucretia asks.

Taako reaches for the jar - she takes another drink before handing it over.  He takes his time tipping it ever so slightly back, gulping, swallowing - his throat moving like an old engine part.

And then, he answers, “We represent it by getting stronger.  More powerful.  Learning new spells.  Understanding new pieces of how the universe works.  Learning new recipes for kickass soup.  Whatever.”

“You’re saying we… are the most valuable pieces of our world,” Lucretia says slowly.

“Something like that.”  Taako takes another swig, then goes on, “We gotta take shit from our old world and as many new ones as we can suck on to save ourselves from the Hunger, and save as many other people as we can take with us.”

“Take everything and don’t look back.”

“Exactly.”  Taako hands Lucretia the jar, as though as a reward for arriving at his conclusion.

She doesn’t drink, this time – just looks up at the stars.  She’d swear that one constellation, over to the west, is the same as one she saw at home – the shape of a five-petal flower, with each petal a slightly different length.  Or does she only think it’s the same constellation because she wants it to be?

“I’m not the one who was hired as a historian, though,” Taako says.  He nudges Lucretia’s shoulder – a little too sharp, a little too long.  “C’mon.  Read to me about wind propellers, or whatever the fuck.”

 

Lucretia is thinking about stars two cycles later, when the ship goes down.

She’s gotten so used to soaring into new worlds that the rush of gravity hits like a thousand-ton battering ram - knocks her to her knees clattering bruising on the cold floor - and she is falling with the ship the ship is falling with her -

There are flashes of light and flashes of darkness - there is something like a thunderstorm, only concentrated, intense - a hundred thunderclaps and a hundred bolts of lightning in one quick shot.  There is something like a hurricane, if hurricanes could scream.

For a moment, she thinks the Hunger has arrived.  It found them too soon - or maybe it skipped a cycle, or maybe they failed the last one somehow – but then she stands, shaky on two legs just shy of failing her, and she knows that this was not the Hunger.  The Hunger would not leave her alone.

She calls out for the rest of the crew - turns and turns and turns around the bridge until she’s dizzy with centripetal force - shouts their names until her voice is hoarse and stares into the sunlight off the desk until her eyes are half-blinded with bright spots.  But nobody answers – Davenport isn’t there to bark orders, Barry isn’t there to check on the engine, Magnus isn’t there to throw himself into danger – it’s only Lucretia.  Lucretia, and a receding storm, and a ship that is crashing.  Will crash.  Has crashed.

Off the side of the deck, there is nothing but still silvery water.

The hull is badly damaged - a crack runs from top to bottom like a fracture in some enormous body.  The engine must have a hit as well - otherwise it wouldn’t be making that rattling noise.  And other pieces must be wrong, too – other parts missing – other damage that she doesn’t know how to fix – how would she know that she’d need to know how to fix – she was hired to write a history – she was hired to shape a narrative – they were supposed to be a team – it was only supposed to be two months.

It was only supposed to be two months.  Or perhaps it was always supposed to be one hundred years.  If there were any exits, any fail-safes, Lucretia scribbled over them lifetimes ago and buried them deep in the hold.

Come home, says a voice in Lucretia’s head.  For a moment, she cannot place the tone, and then she remembers –a too-soft green couch, her head on her mother’s lap, the smell of cinnamon.

Come home.

She was hired to shape a narrative.  But that was lifetimes ago.

Lucretia runs towards the doorway to the hold.

Her stacks of notebooks have been shaken but the organization is still clear – there is a pile for the world she left, a pile for the worlds the crew has explored, piles for cooking and botany and music – and there, between the folk tales Magnus wrote about himself when he was really bored on cycle forty-seven and the compilation of Taako and Lup’s best outfits, is the journal Davenport and Barry filled with information on the Starblaster.  How to use all the controls, which classes of material work best on the hull, the repairs that can be done with metal and the repairs that can be done with magic.

Why do we need to do this? Barry had asked Lucretia, when she sat him down early in cycle six to diagram the ship’s engine.  I know all this stuff better than I know myself, and all of you know the basics, so why –

Better to have too much information than too little, she had replied.

And there’s more that she can use, in these piles.  She practices a gruff tone of voice imitating the syntactical style of religious stories Merle transcribed, and is able to intimidate a group of marauders who threaten to hijack the ship.  She pores over records of Magnus’ and Taako’s games of hide-and-seek on the robot planet, and finds evasive maneuvers that she can use to avoid scouts of the creatures she guesses must have taken her family.  She follows a few of Taako’s transmutation spells and Lup’s favorite recipe for double-chocolate brownies to the letter, and bakes herself something special for her birthday.

She flies the ship.

She keeps writing, because she has to – it’s not grand adventures, only the new repairs she had to make and what she ate for dinner, but watching the pages of a black leather notebook shift from empty to full is an easy reminder of time passing, day one to day twenty to day two hundred and fifty.  But as the decisions get tougher, and the scouts grow more accustomed to her maneuvers, and she learns to fly the ship without one hand stuck in a journal, Lucretia’s meticulous entries shorten.

Pros and cons of hiding beyond Anathema, she writes.  Everything I know about the sentient life on this planet, she writes.  Potential strategies for cooking something close to my father’s gumbo, she writes.  Today I shot down an enemy ship and high-fived myself after, felt like Magnus would have been proud of me but was plenty proud of myself for him, she writes.

Those assholes are gonna owe me ten free backrubs a piece when this shit is over, she writes.

And some nights, she collapses asleep without writing at all.

 

“Why didn’t it take me?” Lucretia asks Barry.  “Something took all six of you, but it left me.  Why me?”

(He is the one who finds her on the deck of the ship early in the next cycle, running her fingers over the binding of one of her notebooks, afraid that if she goes to sleep she will wake up and discover that she is alone once more.)

“I don’t know,” he says, dropping to sit cross-legged next to her.

She looks at him – silent, silent, demanding.

“But I can try to guess, if you want.”

She nods.

“The force that took us – it was these judges, who measured all of our pasts and futures and found us all wanting.  So either they didn’t take you because you alone among the seven of us are without sin, or…”

He hesitates, and she repeats: “Or?”

“Or they didn’t take you because our pasts and futures were dependent upon you spending this year alone.”

 

Lucretia keeps a journal on Lup and Barry.

She begins it after the beach cycle – after she sees them dancing, gazing at each other as though caught in each other’s personal gravitational fields.  She does not write in it often, but when she writes it is of something growing, a kind of tree sprouting branches and leaves and flowers drinking in the sun.  Lup and Barry, volunteering to explore across new worlds without any other crew members to balance them out.  Barry and Lup, staying up all night in the Starblaster kitchen baking ten different batches of chocolate chip cookies.  Lup and Barry, reaching for each other when another world hits apocalypse and there is no Light to stitch it back together.  Barry and Lup, holding hands after a duet and refusing to let go.

There is something growing between them.  It is not greater than any bond between Lup and Taako or Barry and Magnus or any other two members of the Starblaster crew, but it is different.  It is as though their connection is painted in a different color, cast in shades of disgusting nicknames and public displays of affection and Lup slowly relocating all of her clothes to Barry’s room.  Lucretia wonders at it the same way she wonders at particularly eloquent poetry and gold-tinged sunsets, wishes she could take it apart and piece it back together the way Barry does when a world has some piece of mechanics he does not immediately grasp.

And then, halfway through one particularly knotty cycle (the Light dropped between two warring tribes, neither willing to give it up until the other is entirely wiped out) Lucretia tiptoes past the Starblaster kitchen and overhears Barry saying, you know, we do have a cleric on the ship.

Lup drops down next to her on the deck the next morning.  She waits for Lucretia to finish sentences with both hands, then says, “Sorry about last night.  We really should go back to our room when we talk about that shit.”

Lucretia shakes her head, quickly marks pages in her two working journals and shuts them both.  “No, I’m sorry – I shouldn’t have eavesdropped.”

“You weren’t eavesdropping,” Lup assures her.  “It’s all cool.”

Lucretia waits, expecting Lup to get up, but she stays put.  Runs a hand through her hair.  Tilts back until she’s lying on the deck, her hair (currently a dark violet) splayed out against the silver.

“Barry wants to get married,” she says.

Lucretia looks at her for a moment - purple hair, eyes closed, eyeliner painted carefully even though all of three other people will see her today - then asks, “And how do you feel about that?”

Lup pushes herself upright, then stands, then sits back down again.  She pulls at a strand of hair with one hand, starting to braid it absentmindedly as she talks.  “I don’t know.  I want to - how fucking insane is that, that I want to - but it feels selfish.  Like, we’re all going through this honestly awful, draining shit - all these endless cycles - and I want to celebrate it?  Part of me is thankful that so many universes have gone to dust because I got to fucking fall in love?”

“What is that like?” Lucretia asks, before she can stop herself.

Lup turns - her hand drifts down, braid unfinished and already unraveling.  “What?”

“Falling in love,” Lucretia explains.  “What’s it like?”

“Shit, I don’t know.”  Lup leans back to lie down on the floor again, reaches both arms up to cradle the back of her head.  “It’s like… really caring about someone?  But in a romantic way?  I don’t know, Luce, you’re the one good with words and shit.”

“I’ve never felt it, though,” Lucretia replies.  “How about - what’s the difference between what you feel for Barry and what you feel for Taako, or me, or anyone else on the ship?”

“I want to kiss Barry, I guess.  But wait…” Lup squints up into the sky, as though the sun or the clouds will give her an answer.  “Sometimes I want to kiss you?  And sometimes Magnus?  I even wondered about Merle, once.”

“Okay.”  Lucretia considers, asks the question a different way.  “If something happened, say four months into this cycle, and Barry and I were both hanging off a cliff and you could only choose one of us, who would you save?”

“You,” Lup says.  She sits up then - looks right at Lucretia, who is suddenly frozen, eyes wide.  “You’re more valuable to the team.  At least this cycle - you’re a better negotiator, and you know protective spells.  I probably wouldn’t sleep for the rest of the cycle, though,” Lup adds, thoughtful.

“Okay,” Lucretia says.  “Okay.  Then… Can you tell me about when you realized you were in love with Barry?”

Lup nods and stands up again, then goes to the railing of the ship and looks out - warm sun, bright sky.  “It was on the robot cycle.  He was helping repair this one robot, but it kept shocking him - it didn’t want to be touched or something, I guess - it kept shocking him and laughing.  And I thought it was really funny, his face was all -” Lup scrunches up her face as though she just tasted something sour to demonstrate - “But he kept trying.  He just really wanted to help.  And when he finally got it, figured out how to get the robot’s gears back into the right configuration or whatever, he smiled so big - and I thought, it’d be worth living through a thousand cycles, if I could see him smile like that.”

For a moment after that, neither of them speak.  A bird soars by far off the deck, diving into the sun.

“That sounds really nice,” Lucretia finally says.  “It sounds worth celebrating.”

“Yeah,” Lup replies.  And then her eyes widen and she takes off back into the hold, shouting, “Babe!  Babe!  I’ll do it!  I’ll be Mrs. Barold J. Bluejeans!  Or not, Lup Bluejeans sounds like the name of an overpriced organic food chain, but you get the idea!”

Lucretia smiles and goes back to her journals.

 

Merle is writing a memoir.

It’s three volumes, it’s full of dirty jokes, and it’s surprisingly well written.  Lucretia thinks she should have stopped being surprised by Merle Hitower Highchurch decades ago, but nothing has quite prepared her for a book that presents deep insights into the nature of faith on one page, and asks her to illustrate a fart so powerful, it wilted all the flowers in a ten-foot radius on the next.  She does all the illustrations he requests (except for the slightly pornographic depictions of trees, she has to draw the line somewhere - or, rather, not draw it), and watches as he practices recording – as he learns to shape metaphors and imagery to his will the way that he led the people of Fungston to Pan.

“Hey, Lucretia,” he asks her, one afternoon somewhere in volume two, “Do you think you’ll ever write one of these?”

She looks up from her page, where she’s inking a sketch of the first shrine Merle ever built.

“One of whats?”

“A memoir,” he says.  “The life of Lucretia.  You ghost-wrote a whole bunch of these things, back at home, and now you’re helping with mine – haven’t you ever wanted to write one of your own?”

Lucretia looks back down at her sketch.  The shrine stares up at her, clearly outlined trees arranged in a diamond and sunflowers poking their heads up from hard ground.

“Not really,” she confesses.

“Why not?”

“I haven’t done much worth writing about.”

Merle chuckles at that – a good-natured chuckle, the one that keeps her from wondering how Taako and Magnus can sometimes accidentally call him “Dad.”

“That’s nobody’s fault but your own,” he tells her.

And the next day, she asks him to teach her Shield of Faith.

 

Here is how Shield of Faith works.

You take all of the light inside yourself – all of the love, all of the bonds, all of the stories flickering within your chest like infinite constellations – and you project it out.  You project it out, and you shape it into a shield.

Lucretia has never had a natural gift for magic.  She only learned because it seemed an interesting challenge at the Academy, then because it was a necessary survival skill on the Starblaster.  She never had any particular inclination to take a spell and truly master it, pull it inside of her and merge it with her core.

But she feels a connection, with Shield of Faith.  She feels a drive.  Maybe, in some ways, she’s been practicing her whole life for this - practicing holding the things she cares about inside of her, shaping them into narratives, and then spilling them out and out and out until the world has no choice but to notice.

 

“Don’t you ever get tired?” Lucretia asks.

Davenport does not turn, from where he is steering the Starblaster over a reddish sea.  It’s early - dawn over their eighty-ninth world, tendrils of orange snaking over the horizon like wisps of smoke - early enough that none of the others are up yet.

Lucretia is only here because she couldn’t sleep.  Too many of them died in the last cycle - Magnus, Barry, Taako, Lup, all slaughtered by bands of ravaging bandits months before the Hunger touched down - and having them back on board now feels as though they’ve been invaded by ghosts.

“I made coffee,” Davenport says.  “There’s half a pot still in the kitchen, if you want some.”

“No, I mean.”  Lucretia stops.  Takes a shaky breath, in and out.  “Don’t you ever get tired of these cycles?  Living and dying and coming back and steering the ship, again and again and again?”

Now Davenport does turn - he looks at her just for a moment, his green eyes glittering in the morning light.

“It’s the mission,” he says.  “And I’ll keep following the mission.  Simple as that.”

“But it’s been decades since that mission,” Lucretia argues.  “We’ve all been on this ship longer than we were alive on the world that gave us that mission.”

“Lucretia, why do you think the Light keeps bringing us back, cycle after cycle?” Davenport asks.

“I don’t know,” she answers honestly.  (She’d had theories, dedicated a notebook to it in the fifth and sixth cycles, but after a while she stopped wondering - started accepting it as a fact of life, like gravity or the inevitable apocalypse.)

“I think it’s because we’ve been chosen,” the captain says.  “The same way that the IPRE and I chose six people to join me on a mission to the unknown, the Light of Creation - or whoever made it - chose us to keep traveling.  It chose us to keep giving chances to get all of this right.”

“And do you think we’ll get it?”

Davenport glances at her - a half-smile on his face, one eyebrow cocked - as though to say, do you think we won’t?

Lucretia nods, salutes him briefly, then goes down to the kitchen.  She thinks she’s got a decent handle on Taako’s blueberry pancake recipe, and it’d be nice to have breakfast with everyone before they split off to different missions for the year.

 

Lup said, once, that she wanted to believe all of the worlds swallowed by the Hunger were still living somewhere deep inside it.

Everyone else told Lup that was too optimistic.  The planes are gone, because the planes need to be gone, because the Hunger needs to be evil, because there needs to be a cosmic Dark to their cosmic Light.  Because they need to be noble explorers, fighting on against odds larger than life itself, or else they are – only seven lonely candles, flickering on far past their expiration date.

Lucretia thinks about that theory, sometimes.  When she ticks another year into the side of a journal, when she sits on the deck of the Starblaster watching the sky, when she watches another civilization fall – she wonders where the stars go when they burn to black.  Merle said that the Hunger was once only a man – John, he called it – who wanted to overcome the limitations of his world’s creator.  Perhaps he took the worlds in order to save them, in order to prevent them from changing too fast or forgetting too much –

Perhaps the Hunger is only another way of saving stories.

 


 

iii. direction

 

Lucretia knew that Lup and Barry’s plan would never work.

Seven relics, seven pieces of the Light, seven would-be gods deflecting their war onto an innocent world – it was built to tear them apart from the beginning.  If the Hunger is projecting nihilism to the souls it absorbs, they are projecting desire.  You can be stronger, their objects whisper.  You can be smarter.  You can be more powerful.

Lucretia has studied enough history – has written enough history – to know that power corrupts.  A shield, even if it cuts off the world, is still a sure thing, while weapons are volatile, like throwing a fireball into a lightning storm.  She makes these justifications to herself endlessly, writing hundreds of pages that extrapolate upon a single argument like the worst of Enlightenment philosophers, but in the end her friends still vote for fire.

That doesn’t work, the next time we get the Light of Creation on a future cycle, we can do your thing, Magnus told her.  She writes that down on the first page of a blank notebook, and fills the rest of the pages with stories.

The settlement of Armos, where a seven-year-old girl found the Philosopher’s Stone and turned the city into peppermint candy.  Seven hundred and fourteen people were killed.  The village of Greenhold, where a warlord used the Oculus to manifest a small black hole, which annihilated the entire town.  Eleven hundred and fifty two people killed.  The Archipelago of Moonshae, which drowned in three minutes under the weight of a storm summoned by the Gaia Sash. Two thousand, five hundred and twelve people killed.  Seven entire cities destroyed by the Phoenix Fire Gauntlet.  Ten thousand dead. (ep 39)

And there are more.  Many more.  So many more that Lucretia cannot sleep at night, kept wide-eyed and shaking by visions of forgotten cities and lost families and stories that will never even see a beginning all because she did not work hard enough for her family to let her try.

I wish there was a third option, Magnus said, where we could just fight and beat them.

Magnus is good at fighting – good at light and dark, black and white, point me in the direction of something bad and I’ll swing my axe until it stops.  Lucretia wishes, on days like these, that she could think like Magnus.  Just once, she would like to see black and white instead of constantly questioning and questioning and questioning until the entire world is shades of gray.

She wishes there was a third option, but there are only two.  Not white and black, but one shade of black and one of gray – ink on paper and fire on water – a shield and a sword – betrayal and compliance.

Lucretia is still telling stories, but the color of her ink is shifting, and its cost has gone up.

 

There is a note on the kitchen table that reads, Back soon.

Nobody has touched it since it landed early one morning.  They all tiptoe around it like a ghost, or a dying world.  Barry and Taako sit at the table when they aren’t searching, staring at the note as though if they concentrate hard enough, they can bring her back - as though she’ll rise from the ink and paper, her red robes swirling - as though those two words are a bell tolling some great heartbeat - da dum da dum back soon back soon -

Lup, Lucretia writes in her journal that night.  Lup, your family misses you.  I understand why you had to go, but we are all so cold without you.  I don’t think I’ve seen Taako smile in a week.

She gets up, after the writing grows illegible, and goes for a drink of water.  And then she stops, at the doorway to the kitchen.

Taako is sitting at the kitchen table.  His feet are up on the chair, his knees raised, whole body curled inside himself as though trying to fit into a jar, or a sword, or the space between two heartbeats - back soon -

Lucretia runs back to her quarters, feet too loud on the iron floor.

Who will stop him from killing himself, this time?

 

She does not sleep for five nights, after that.

She spends the nights writing, filling page after page with plans and pro/con lists and diagrams.  Diatribes and letters to herself and mock arguments with the others.  She writes lying backwards on her bed, and sitting on the deck of the ship, and staring into Fisher’s tank.  She writes until her fingers are curled tight and her eyes ache from candlelight, and then she writes some more.

And as dawn rises after the fifth night, a notebook from the top shelf of her library catches her eye.  It’s the notebook from her year alone.  The entries that start with gods I’m so scared, I know I need to do this because any of them would if they were here instead of me but I’m so scared and end with those assholes are gonna owe me ten free backrubs a piece.  The syntax that grows tightened, the details that grow stringent, the decisions that grow confident.

Lucretia can’t quite remember how she felt when she wrote these entries, but she can imagine – she can extrapolate, from ink on a page to five senses in her mind.  She was so lonely, that year.  There were nights when she cried until her eyes were scratchy and red.  But there were days when she did the jobs of seven people seamlessly, because she knew she had to.

If she made it through a year like that before, she can make it through a year like that again.

 

Lucretia works on the journal for weeks.

She does not begin the journal she will use for the erasure, at first.  First she experiments, runs trials on their memories to figure out precisely how much she needs to write down and how much she can leave to Fisher.  She starts with records of early worlds: gives Fisher a detailed play-by-play of each day of a cycle, then gives Fisher a basic summary of each month, then gives Fisher a few lines of what each member of the crew did for the full cycle.  After giving Fisher each journal, she asks her friends a few specific questions: what did you do during the twelfth cycle?  What was that shirt Merle wore on the desert world that we all made fun of him for?  How many different colors did Lup and Taako dye their hair?  And she takes notes on those interrogation sessions and gives them to Fisher as well, building up as much evidence as she can.

After a few rounds of test journals, Lucretia realizes that Fisher’s memory erasure works a bit like code.  In order for someone to forget an event, or a person, or a world, Fisher doesn’t need every piece of detailed description on that thing; rather, Fisher only needs a few basic tenets without which the rest of the event or person or world would be incomprehensible.  Like Euclidian geometry – cut down the axioms, and the whole system of mathematics falls apart.  Tell Fisher someone’s core values, the most fundamental pieces of their identity, and they cease to exist.

Part of Lucretia is disappointed that she can’t public an academic paper on Fisher – she thinks Barry and Lup, or her science major friends from a lifetime ago, would be proud of how she organized this process.  But Barry certainly isn’t proud.  He’s maybe even a bit suspicious, after six rounds of writing-giving-forgetting, when he asks her why she’s so intent on him remembering details of something that happened eighty-five cycles ago.

And so, she stops experimenting and begins to write.  She uses a special journal for this, one that Taako had transmuted for her as Candlenights present the year after she saved all of their asses, thick and blue with silver trim.  It has two hundred pages, and she divides it easily – she has a system for this, like everything else.  Ten pages for backstory on the IPRE and on the Starblaster mission.  Two pages for each member of the crew: a sketch of their face, a description of their role on the mission, a summary of the skills they learned during that hundred years.  One and a half pages for each cycle: a brief description of the world and its major life forms, an account of how the Light of Creation was recovered (if it was), a list of what each IPRE crew member did that year, an explanation of that world’s apocalypse.  (A few cycles go over, but Lucretia is careful to limit even those to two pages at most.)  One page for each of the relics.  Two pages for the Relic Wars.  Two pages for everything Lucretia knows about the Hunger.  Three pages for physical details and sketches of the Starblaster.

And five pages for Lup.  Lup is the hardest part of writing the journal, because she is where Lucretia ceases to be academic and begins to be personal.  How could Taako or Barry be happy without Lup – but how could they be happy remembering her loss?  Could remembering her loss bring them to realize something else is missing, cause them to seek Lucretia out?  They are two of the smartest people Lucretia knows, two of the smartest people on any plane of existence.  They would not need memories to fight her.

She lets the journal sit beneath her desk for several hours, ink drying, before making a tactical decision.  Five pages on Lup.  Personal details.  Just enough to give Lucretia a wide berth.  And in return, Lucretia will search – she tells herself she will search.

(It is not easy work, this chronicling.  There are days when Lucretia stares at a blank page for hours on end, willing her fingers to move her pen into the shapes it must form.  There are hours when her hands shake too badly to even hold a pen at all.  And there are nights when she sits up on the deck of the Starblaster, searching the stars for any similarities to the night sky she now remembers only in diagrams – for any sign that this is not another failure in the making.

(It is easier when she makes it methodical. Focus on the details.  Take it one cycle at a time, one page at a time, one line at a time.  Until two hundred pages are filled, a next step written inevitably into the binding.)

And then, the journal glittering and heavy on her desk, Lucretia writes each of her friends a letter.

They are short letters, none of them more than one page, front and back, tucked into the back of the silver journal just before she gives it to Fisher.  They are not related to the mission – not related to saving the world.  They document Lucretia’s favorite memories with each person.  She thanks Magnus for pulling her out of the ship’s hold, so early in their first cycle.  She retells the weekend Taako spent teaching her to cook gumbo, painstakingly going through twenty-seven batches with her until they isolated her father’s recipe.  She recounts each and every one of her and Barry’s private jokes (there are one hundred and seventy-two).  She writes about Merle’s First Church of Fungston, and their oral history project, and his incredible illustrated memoir.  She lists each time Davenport inspired her to look past her perceived limitations.  And for Lup, she does not write – she instead draws, then paints, in a shade of orange she invented just for the occasion, a fireball spilling brilliant light into every corner of the earth.

It is necessary, Lucretia tells herself over and over.  She is erasing the best parts of her friends for their own protection, and so that they will not stop her.  It is not that she wants to do this on her own, but that she has been left no other choice.

There is no third option.

She stands in front of Fisher’s tank for almost an hour, arm outstretched, journal poised over the void.  It’s almost selfish – this journal, this carefully engineered version of the Starblaster’s mission including as many factual details as possible in as few words, is her best work.  And now, nobody but her will ever know it existed.

(For a moment, she remembers that Fisher might choose to rebroadcast her journal, a possibility as terrifying as it is thrilling.)

But then, it has been a century since Lucretia was a literature major at her world’s best liberal arts academy.  None of the texts she studied then still exist.  Now, her life’s best work will be recovering all seven relics and saving this world from the Hunger.

She is doing this in spite of her family not because she resents them, but because she wants them to be happy.  No third option.

She drops the journal into the tank.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lucretia: I can do this Magnus, please, please just lie down, I don’t want you to fall and hurt yourself. I love you, Magnus, I love all of you. I’m sorry, it’ll be over soon.

(ep 66)

 

Here are the things Lucretia gives up in Wonderland: her hair, two of her languages, the shape of her father’s smile, twenty years of her life.

Here is the one thing she refuses to give up: her family.

“Your friends have all forgotten you,” one of the liches croons.  “They’re living perfectly peacefully without you and without each other.  Why don’t you want to join them?”

“We’d make sure you still remember your mission,” the other one harmonizes.  “Your precious relics, your quest against the Hunger.  But you’ll believe you did it all alone.”

“Believe you did it all alone,” the first lich echoes.  “Isn’t it more heroic that way?”

“No,” Lucretia tells them.  “If I don’t remember them, everything else is meaningless.”

 

Founding the Bureau of Balance is surprisingly easy.

Well, it’s certainly not easy in the way that sketching a flower is easy, or the way that composing a rhyme is easy, or even the way that devising a perfect metaphor is easy.  (She’s had a century of practice for all of those things.)  But it is straightforward, step by step.  She reads through Davenport’s history of the IPRE, takes meticulous notes, then devises her own constitution.  A system of checks and balances.  An inherent distrust of magical artifacts.

The bureaucracy is in place – she only needs people to fill the roles.  And they come soon enough: adventurers and clerics and Fantasy Costco retailers, looking for a place to prove themselves.  Lucretia becomes a good leader because she has to be.  She dons Madam Director the way she used to don her red robe in the morning on the Starblaster: first one sleeve, then the other, then her long black boots, then a poised, professional smile.

This is only another way to tell a story, after all.  The lonely journal keeper bears the weight of one hundred years on her back, a ship that only she knows how to steer.  In another version, she would be the antagonist – the evil witch who betrays her friends and takes the quest upon herself for selfish personal gain.

But she is writing this story, and so she writes herself Madam Director: a woman who summons giants with her little finger and keeps bureaucracies running steady as clockwork without telling a single soul her true name.

(Now, if only her Regulators would stop dying.)

 

Somewhere between years six and seven of the Bureau of Balance’s operation, Barry asks for a truce.

“Gods, you look awful,” he tells her.

He’s in lich form, something that has never ceased to unnerve her even after many cycles – the empty red robe, the crackling energy – one wrong move and a city goes up in smoke, like a spell cast by one of the relics.  He’s in lich form, but part of Lucretia is so happy to see him.  Barry Bluejeans, with his raspy voice and his big square glasses.  She used to write limericks and slip them under his door when she couldn’t sleep, and his precise diagrams taught her to fly the Starblaster.

And now they’re sitting in a makeshift tent on top of a snowcapped mountain, facing each other across a fire like two warring lords in a feudal nation.

“You’re looking a little crispy yourself,” Lucretia replies.

“Yeah, but you’ve seen Lich Barry before,” he says.  “What happened to you is… I know stress can make us humans go gray, but this is a whole other level, Luce.”

She hasn’t heard that nickname in years – it hits like a mage hand to the stomach.

“It’s a long story,” she says, after a moment.  “So, tell me.  Why did you want to have this meeting?”

“Ah, well.”  Barry hovers nervously – and it’s impossible to explain how a lich could appear nervous except that it’s Barry, and oh, she has missed him.  “I was wondering if we couldn’t… come to some kind of compromise.”

“There is no third option,” Lucretia says.  “You know that.”

Barry hovers – moves in towards the fire, then back out towards the edge of the tent.  “Yeah, but we could still work together.  I could help you find the relics, or at least help control them.  You could give us our memories back.”

Lucretia shakes her head.  “I couldn’t do that without bringing the whole world’s memories back, and that’s assuming Fisher could be convinced to rebroadcast the information, which is a factor over which neither you nor I have control.”

“But there has to be something we can do,” Barry insists.  He’s hovering higher off the ground now, starting to crackle with red-hot energy around the edges.  “Just let me look at him, let me up to your base, let me do something.  I can’t keep hiding out like this, I –”

“No,” Lucretia says.  No, Madame Director says.

And maybe it’s because he is afraid of her now, maybe because he knows he has no real leg to stand on, maybe simply because she looks twenty years older – Barry stops trying.

“If I need your help, I will ask for it,” Lucretia tells him.  “And not before.”

“Fine.”

There is a pause – the crackling of the fire, the swirling of wind and snow outside – and then he says, “Look, I know this is gonna sound weird because we’re enemies now and all, but… Could we hang out, for a little bit?  I’ve missed you.”

Lucretia spares a second to think that emotional vulnerability is going to get him killed someday, and then she remembers that it already has.

And so, they hang out.  They sit at the same side of the fire and tell stories of the time Magnus and Taako accidentally became cult leaders, and the time Lup leveled a small town just by grinning, and the time Merle almost fucked a tree.  Lucretia laughs – Lucretia becomes Lucretia, in a way that does not quite mean losing twenty years back off her life but means her soul lightening, the weight of a thousand memories suddenly shared.

“Before we go back to being enemies,” Barry says several hours later, “I have one question.  Have you found anything on Lup?”

“No,” Lucretia tells him.  “I’m sorry,” Lucretia tells him.  “If I do find anything, you’ll be the first to know,” Lucretia tells him.

And, gods, does she want to believe she’s telling the truth.

 

There is a portrait in the Director’s office.

At first glance, it looks like Madam Director herself: a lone woman, tall and dark, with a long white staff and a cloak blue and expansive as the night sky.  But if you were to dispel the illusion, wave away the fog of forgotten memory, you would see seven figures in red.  You would see seven smiling faces, savoring the family they have built from a ship and a mission and a fight against the darkness.

Lucretia does not see the true portrait every time she looks at it.  She sees it only when she has to – only when she needs to remember why she is walking on alone.

 

She starts giving more of her journals to Fisher.

Fisher is trapped in a cavern, most of their friends gone, no more adventures or starships or wooden ducks – all her fault – the least she can do is keep them entertained.  She never gives them the journals written by Barry, or Magnus, or Merle, or any of the others.  Those are too valuable.  Those are for Lucretia to read alone by candlelight, when she cannot sleep or when she is doubting the heartbeat in her chest.  Those are for her to remind herself why her family deserves happiness.

But Lucretia’s journals… those barely have the value of the ink and parchment composing them.  A collection of her essays from the Academy – worthless.  A catalog of her favorite flowers from Tesseralia – worthless.  A whole book of riddles she invented while bored on a snowy, uninhabitable planet – why did she even bother to write this?  Lucretia moves from inconsequential notebooks full of data to sketchbooks to more personal books, journals full of stories told on the deck of the Starblaster, lists of what the IPRE crew members gave each other for Candlenights, her endless attempts to recreate her home world’s stars.

Until one night, she is standing before Fisher’s tank holding a black leather-bound book with a piece of seaweed tied around the cover.  Eighty years, and it still stinks of seawater.

Fisher is trembling in front of her.  Vibrating, like a harp string just plucked, like a universe being born.  There are so many lights inside of them – entire constellations glittering and gleaming and dancing.  Lucretia imagines each light is a story.  How many of those lights are hers?  How much has she given up?

If someone were to cut her down and split her apart like a still-breathing tree, would she glitter like that?  Or would she be an endless black void?

The journal falls from her hands and lands on the floor with a dull thump, open to the inside front cover.  On that page is a chart: the names of each member of the IPRE crew, connected with thin black lines.  Davenport, to Merle.  Magnus, to Taako, to Barry.  Barry, to Lup.  Lup, to Lucretia.  Her handwriting is smudged, ancient, barely recognizable.

Lucretia drops to her knees in front of Fisher, her robes spilling out around her like a raincloud about to spill.  She is not crying.  She is not crying.

“I wish you could make me forget,” she says.

Her voice is unfamiliar – too many sharp edges, almost breaking on the consonants.  This is Lucretia’s voice, not Madam Director’s.

“I mean – I know, I can’t, I’m immune,” Lucretia goes on, bracing her palms on the stone floor, “but I wish – I wish I could, just for a night, I wish I didn’t have to be the only one.  How do you do it?  How do you hold so many memories?  You don’t write anything down, you don’t talk.  I’ve given you so much terror and anger – how do you keep from drowning beneath it?”

Fisher does not answer her – they only float above her, celestial and ancient.  The lights near their head are flickering faintly.

“Could you teach me how to remember everything?” Lucretia asks.  “I feel like I’m drowning – I need to stop.  I need to be strong enough for them.  Can you help me?”

Fisher hovers nearer to her, a constellation dancing just within.  Lucretia stands up and steps forward, rests her forehead on the glass of the tank the way Magnus used to, when he needed strength.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers.  “I’m so sorry.  But I can’t take it back – I don’t want to take it back.  If this world is where our journey ends, if I can’t find all the relics, at least they will have been happy.”

Fisher flickers again and draws closer, then places one wispy tendril on the glass up against Lucretia.  After a moment, they begin humming, or echoing, or reverberating – sending out a melody that thrums as powerful as the rotation of the earth.

(E-G-G-B-A-B-E.)

After that, Lucretia stops giving Fisher her journals.  But she still goes to their tank when she cannot sleep and sits beneath their constellation ink, writing and writing until the voices in her head grow quiet.

And she finds a young boy – fourteen years old, family killed in the Relic Wars, with a love for ridiculous hats and the greatest musical talent she’s ever heard – and brings him into the Bureau of Balance.  Introduces him to Fisher.  Tells him to write the most beautiful songs he can think of, because this creature deserves it.

 

She visits them, a few times.

Taako, she visits when she is lonely.  She tucks herself into the back of the crowd during his cooking shows, watches him transmute salt into sugar and back with a winning smile painted on.  She laughs at all of his jokes, shouts compliments at all of his outfits, leaves anonymous notes with the criticism she imagines Lup might give.  After Glamour Springs, she ensures his first adventuring job, vanquishing a ghoul that’s terrorizing a small farming village.

Merle, she visits when she is unsure of herself.  She looks for him on the beach, his feet in the sand and his nose in a book.  She leaves tiny plants on his windowsill, takes Pan pamphlets from the basket on his doorstep.  When his children are born, she sends them books, and when he skips out, she ensures Hecuba a steady job.

And Magnus… Magnus, she visits only once.  Only because she has to.

She casts a disguise spell – not as skillfully as what Taako might have done, only making her bones slightly shorter, her face slightly wider, her nose slightly longer – dons a long cloak and a husky voice, and goes to the town of Raven’s Roost, to the woodshop of the man they tell her is the best in the world.

“I have a commission for your apprentice,” she tells Steven Waxman.  “I would like him to carve me a duck.”

 

(When Lucretia brings the duck in, Fisher lights up like ten universes, like a thousand stars.  When she carries the baby out, Fisher lets out a screaming roar like the center of a hurricane.)

 

I’m Davenport.

He says the name in the hallway, sometimes, when he believes nobody else is around - just echoes it to himself, Davenport Davenport Davenport, until it stops sounding like a name and starts sounding like just noise - static, perhaps, or a clanging bell.

Lucretia tries not to leave him alone for too long.  His bedroom is right next to hers on the base, so that if he starts screaming from nightmares or banging his head against the wall from frustration, she can run in and help him.  She rubs his back, gentle circles steady as the movement of the sea, and reads to him from nautical stories.  (His favorite is Mobi Dyck - they get through it a full three times.)

Sometimes, after Davenport goes back to sleep, Lucretia returns to her room and her hands will not stop shaking.  Her mind races races races - is there anything she could have written to preserve him - anything she could have done to keep him sane - what will happen when she brings him back.

When that happens, she opens the first drawer of her desk and pulls out a journal.  This journal is ancient - bound in dark blue leather the color of twilight, tied together with several strings, pages yellowed and ink faded.  Her handwriting was so tidy, back then.  Now all her lines and curves run together.

The journal is labeled: Starblaster training.

Lucretia opens it to a familiar dog-eared page and reads through a familiar entry.  She’s memorized the words by now, of course, but there’s still something novel about reading them - something that brings the precise look in his eyes and the tone of his voice, when he told her to take a seat and she stayed standing.

You all need to be trained together so that you can all trust each other.

Lucretia will give Davenport this journal when he gets his memories back.  She will tell him, thank you for bringing us together.  Thank you for seeing our potential.

She will, she will.  But for now, all she can do is trace her too-neat handwriting with a wrinkled index finger, and gather the right ingredients to make his favorite scrambled eggs with sausage in the morning.

 

Merle, Magnus, and Taako walk into the Bureau of Balance, and Lucretia almost expects them to recognize her.

She closes her eyes, and she can imagine it so clearly – Magnus would swoop her up in a giant bear hug, and Merle would tease her for looking so old and so professional, and Taako would hang back and sniff at her clothing choices before eventually giving in and pulling one of his famous macaroons out of thin air to give her.  She can imagine it so clearly that it feels like a stab to the chest when she opens her eyes and all three of them are looking at her as though she’s a new battle just waiting for ignition.

I know you, she wants to scream.  I know how you take your tea, Taako, and all the Latin names of your favorite plants, Merle, and Magnus, there’s a drawing of the first duck you ever carved hanging in the back of my office.  I know the stories of your families, and the towns you grew up in, and how many times each of you died.  I know you better than anyone in that world down there – better even than you do yourselves – and I have missed you so much.

But she doesn’t scream, and she doesn’t beg, and she doesn’t rush forward to embrace them like three pieces of her heart that have suddenly come home.  She only paints on a practiced smile and says, “Welcome, the three of you, to the Bureau of Balance.”

None of them notice that her voice is shaking.

 

Lucretia keeps writing, because she would blink out of existence if she stopped.

Her entries are mostly shorter now – it takes all her energy to jot down a few lines between taking off Madam Director and falling asleep.  (The thing nobody tells you about running a super-secret elite organization is, it’s exhausting.)

Got a lead on another relic today, she writes.  The Oculus.  I brought the boys in to tell them about it, and Magnus got naked.  He’s lucky I’ve already seen that shit.  Note to self: make a general BoB rule against nudity in the office.

And: Magnus has been going for runs around the quad.  He claims it’s to keep up his physique, but I suspect he’s planning training courses for how to keep dogs from running off the base.  Note to self: investigate price of installing an electric fence.

And: Angus McDonald is a rather curious child, and I mean that in both definitions of the word.  It’s almost refreshing to have someone ask so many questions, although I worry that he’ll investigate my office and find things he shouldn’t.  Note to self: increase the puzzle difficulty.

And: Candlenights.  Magnus gave me a coupon for one free back rub.  Taako made macaroons.  Merle re-gifted.  Funny, how I keep expecting them to call me Luce and swing me around or laugh at me for writing all of this down.

And: Taako woke up half the base last night smashing bowls of some sauce that he’d made for a dinner party at his, Magnus’, and Merle’s place.  Tried to talk to him to ask what happened with his cooking show, but he snarled at me and teleported away.

And: Thought of Lup today.  Wonder what she would say, if she could see them – going on missions, saving the world, all that shit, without knowing they’re saving it from themselves.  Wonder what Barry’s up to.

And: Almost asked Merle to wish Mavis congratulations on finishing primary school from me, then realized he would want to know how I know she finished primary school, or even how I know she exists.  I don’t even know if he still talks to her.

And: Davenport’s birthday.  I gave him a ship in a bottle and a gift card to the Fantasy Costco.  He gave me this look like he was asking me if it was better than what I gave him on his last birthday.  I couldn’t answer.

And: Searched a new potential Lup location, to no avail.  Taako has her umbrella, and I keep thinking about what that means.  I have two theories and don’t like either.  And I don’t like that I haven’t told Barry.  I should find a way to tell him.  I should.

And: I wonder what Magnus would say if I tried to use that coupon he gave me for one free back rub.

 

Lucretia hasn’t had a vacation in seven or eight years when Merle invites her to the spa.

She says yes almost without thinking – almost imagining that she will spend the day with her old friend Merle, expert biologist and theologist Merle, who safeguarded her secrets in the pocket of his floral-print fanny pack, not this Merle, half-unfamiliar Merle, who sometimes looks at her as though trying to decide whether to trust or forsake.

“We haven’t really hit it off very well,” he says.

(Sometimes, when she can’t sleep for fear of the dark, she re-reads his memoir.  She has parts of it memorized.)

The spa is strange.  Being pampered is strange – people rubbing her back and massaging her feet and wrapping towels around her neck as though she is worthy of gentleness.  She gets something called a pedicure, and suddenly her calves are bathed in soft purple lotion and her toenails are magically one sixteenth of an inch shorter and – it’s funny, she suddenly realizes, this is the first time she’s had another person touch her in years.

The spa is strange.  Spending time with Merle is stranger.  She wants to ask him about his kids, if he’s spoken to them at all since he joined the Bureau.  She wants to ask him if he’s found any particularly beautiful flowers recently (she could be mistaken, but she thinks the ones in his beard are new.)  She wants to ask him – gods, she wants to ask him for advice.  If she’s really doing the right thing, leading the search for the relics all on her own, keeping her friends in the dark.  If she should confess before the whole thing inevitably explodes in her face.

“I read women pretty well,” Merle says.  “Women and trees.”

Half of Lucretia wants to laugh at that, and the other half wants to cry.  So she finds a place in the middle, takes a swig of her hundred and twenty five-year-old grape juice and asks Merle questions to which she already knows the answers, wonders at the seamless stitching of a century-wide gap and the easy way he just keeps believing.

This is not the Merle she entrusted with her secrets, and it is not the Merle who started a church for people without hope or taught her a spell that she hopes to once use to embrace the world.  But it is still a Merle who believes, if only in the value of belief itself, and that belief is enough for her.

 

She never talks to Taako.

Magnus, she’ll wave to when he passes the tree she likes to sit at and read during his morning runs.  Merle, she joins for lunch sometimes in the mess hall, after both of them have wandered in almost too late to get any food.  Davenport, she sits with late into the night, ensuring he falls asleep.  They are not quite her family yet they are familiar, like pillows propping up her head, her knees, her feet.

But Taako - Taako is a double-edged sword displayed behind two layers of glass, glittering and laced with arsenic.  If she gets too close, she would either shatter him or shatter herself.  Lucretia is not sure which she fears more.

And she does get close, sometimes.  She passes his work room during training, she passes the door to his quarters in the evening, she passes him in the kitchen early in the morning.  She passes, or she stops and stands - she watches him dip where he should be dancing, fumble where he should be flying.  She watches him do the work of two with half the knowledge, watches him miss a spell that he taught her once lifetimes ago they were stuck on the ship the world’s climate unbreachable and he said hey Luce get your nose out of that book we’re gonna turn your hair blue -

I’m sorry, is on the tip of her tongue.  I didn’t know it would do this, is threatening to spill from behind her teeth.  But she knows, one word to break the dam and it’s an easy waterfall into you have a sister I erased her from your memory but she’s brilliant and beautiful and probably wants to kill me and half of me thinks she’s wandering the black glass of Phandalin and the other half thinks she’s trapped in your umbrella -

She gets close.  She does not break the dam.

Until one day, Madam Director knocks on the door of the best apartment on the moon base and asks, “Is Taako here?”

“Sure,” Merle says, hands dangling unsure then coming to rest behind his back.  “I’ll get him.”

And then, there he is - twilight blue hair tied back in a loose bun, a spot of flour on his nose.  There are wrinkles around his eyes where Lup’s skin was always smooth, and Lucretia aches to reach out and rub them away - write him a history in which he was not alone - but she stops herself.  Takes a step back.  Holds out the tray she’s carried from the kitchen.

“Happy birthday,” she tells him.

Taako jumps backwards, suddenly pale - as though confronted with his own ghost.

“How did you know it was my birthday?” he demands.

Lucretia motions the tray towards him, hopeful that the smell will help him calm down, help him remember, but he only begins to shake.  (The voidfish works like hitting enter on a line of code.)

“It - it was in my files,” Lucretia says.  “Um - from the data I’d collected - uh, when I was trying to decide whether -”

“Okay, whatever, fine,” Taako interrupts.  He releases his hair, lets it cascade down his shoulders like a manufactured waterfall.  (He’s still shaking, but Lucretia knows better than to mention it.)  “But I do have one question.”

“Anything,” she replies.  Shit, she thinks.

“If you know my birthday… Do you know how old I am?”

Lucretia steps back.  She looks at him, and she looks at him, and she looks at him - flour on his nose and wrinkles around his eyes and scars tracing one wrist and a bracer on the other.  Twelve years older than his sister, and yet a century younger.

“I don’t know,” she says.  “I’m sorry.  But… I made chocolate chip cookies?”  And she holds them out, one last time.

Taako looks down at the cookies, then up at Lucretia’s face.

“I hate chocolate chip cookies,” he says.

And the door slams shut in her face.

 

One night, when Lucretia is working late in her office, Johann knocks on her door.

She opens it to find him standing on shaky legs, his face white and his hat in his hands.

“I don’t want to be given to the voidfish.”  The words are torn from his throat like a bandage ripped from an open wound.  “I know it’s protocol to be fed to it when we die, but I don’t want to go to the voidfish – I want to be remembered, I –”

“Fisher,” she says.

Johann stops, his hat drops to the floor.  “What?”

“The voidfish.  Their name is Fisher.”

 


 

iv. narration

 

It does not make sense, that Magnus is the first to die.

The thought springs to Lucretia’s mind unbidden when the others tell her - glory in battle, he gave his life for us, nobility and honor and courage - it all blurs together in her mind like some old epic poem, worthless now that its heroes have stopped singing.  Magnus does not - did not deserve glory in battle.  He deserved more life than his body can contain, he deserved a well-built house and friends to fill it, he deserved dogs that will not run off the moon.

He deserved the smiles of ten thousand people receiving one of his wooden ducks.  Or he deserved twenty thousand free back rubs.

It does not make sense, Lucretia thinks - and then she doesn’t have time for a second thought, or a third thought, or a fourth thought, because the darkness is falling and the colors are fading and here we are again at the end of the world -

It’s almost refreshing, to have arrived here at last.  Lucretia smiles as the darkness falls like greeting an old friend.  The heft of her shaft is familiar, the swirl of her cloak is familiar.  Years fall away - twenty years sixty years one hundred years - until she imagines herself back on her home world, standing in front of her mother.

(This is nothing like one of Lucretia’s epic poems, and it is everything like one of Lucretia’s epic poems.)

She smiles, and then she takes a deep breath and casts Shield of Faith.

 

Taako points an umbrella at her, and for a moment, Lucretia almost tells him to do it.

Here is how the voidfish works: like hitting enter on a line of code, or dismantling a system of geometry, or chopping down a massive tree.  Cut the core tenets, and the whole thing goes down.  But people are not code or geometry – they are fully embodied constellations, and each memory held within is a new star.

Lucretia has been telling herself for years that she erased her friends’ memories so that she could make them happy.  But if she had succeeded in making them happy, one of them would not be ready to kill her right now.

This was the man who sat on the deck of the Starblaster, infinite universes before him, and said that all but seven people were dust.  And she took six of those seven.

Madam Director is the villain in this story.  She can paint and paint all she wants, but she has been so selfish – she has grown too large – she has swallowed their constellations – she has absorbed them into her own personal black plane, glittering blue and green and red bright red – she has become

She will try to save the world.  And then, if they want to kill her, she will let them.

 

(Lucretia casts Shield of Faith, and she keeps casting, and she keeps casting, and she keeps casting.  She will let her friends kill her, but not before she saves them.)

 

The umbrella breaks.

And suddenly, everything is possible.

 

There is a green light, followed by a blue.  A story, followed by a song.

Her first thought is: I wish Johann were here to witness this.  And her second: oh, shit.

This is her story – her journal, memories that were transcribed and organized to be forgotten now broadcast to be remembered.  She is painfully aware of every spelling mistake, every incorrect name – and, oh gods, she used like where she should have used as though on page fifty-six.  But there is something wider – Lucretia tears herself from the details – the multiverse is now experiencing her version of this history.

A more moral telling of this story would paint her as a villain.  Would paint all of them as villains – seven would-be gods deflecting their war onto an innocent world.

And yet this version was written by Lucretia, so it tells the story of seven heroes.  Seven brilliant lights against the darkness – Magnus rushing in, and Taako evaluating all his options, and Lup grinning guns blazing, and Barry caring too much about everything, and Merle relentlessly believing, and Davenport steering the whole improbable thing.  This version tells the story of Lucretia’s family, and it paves the way for the story of Madam Director – not a traitor, but a martyr.

Lucretia tried so hard, when she wrote this journal, to stick to the facts of the mission.  But as she relives it broadcast across the known universe, she knows the truth:

This is the most unreliable narrative she has ever written.

 

But see, here is the thing, Lucretia.  Here is the piece of the puzzle you keep missing.  There is magic in a bard’s song, and narratives are only as unreliable as those who read them.

There is magic in a bard’s song, and it tells the listener what they need to hear.  This world is on the verge of apocalypse. A century of darkness is diving down to swallow it whole.  This future is a void of black, and these listeners have never needed a hero more.

Some of them will rush in, some will evaluate all their options, some will grin guns blazing, some will care too much, some will believe, some will steer.  And some will be like you – fighting by watching and listening and recording, fighting by channeling all of the best parts of those they love into themselves.

Your history is a blank canvass, even though it is built of ink.  It is a foundation upon which the people of this world can write themselves heroes, by planting pieces of you into their hearts and screaming that they are not ready to give up.

Infinite minds hear the story, and infinite new stories take shape.  Infinite constellations are dancing around you, Lucretia.  Can’t you hear them?

You should have known that this would happen.  You’ve certainly taken enough literature courses.

 

There is a third option.

It sounds impossible, except that it is so entirely what she would expect of her friends – of her family – that she does not even question their logic.

(But of course, their logic is impeccable.  And how fitting that Taako was the one to come up with the plan – that the person so devoid of hope has given it to the rest of them – gods, Lucretia, stop psychoanalyzing this and start living it.)

There is a third option.  Lucretia will save the world, but not before she lets her friends know she is sorry.  Magnus rushes in to hug her, Lup tells her it’s already forgotten – and this is a weight of ten years lifting off her chest, this is breathing air after a century of drowning.  She should have talked to them earlier, she should have trusted instead of setting on down the long dark tunnel alone.  But there will be time for regrets later.  This is the timeline Lucretia has built with her words and her white oak staff, and this is the timeline for which she will fight.

Lucretia will rewrite Madam Director, but not until after she has saved the world.

She boards the Starblaster one last time, and she catalogues the things worth saving: soup and salad  and the color of the sky on a clear day and one hundred and twenty five year old grape juice and the smell of new books and Johann’s music and the taste of macaroons and the first flowers of spring and a perfect metaphor and the limerick about a man from Nantucket and seven smiling faces on a portrait in her office.

And seven constellations dancing inside her.

 

Here is how Shield of Faith works.

You take all of the light inside yourself – all of the love, all of the bonds, all of the stories flickering within your chest like infinite constellations – and you project it out.  You project it out, and you shape it into a shield.  You close your eyes and imagine all of the people you love standing behind you – you imagine all of the reasons that make your world worth saving – and you push every fiber of arcane energy at your command to keep them safe.

Lucretia casts Shield of Faith.  And she keeps casting, and she keeps casting, and she keeps casting, and she –

 

A voice on the train calls her the most powerful person they’ve ever met, and Lucretia almost laughs.

Not because she doesn’t believe the compliment – she just cast a spell that cut off a dark destructive plane breaking most of the laws of existence, she must be pretty damn impressive – but because she isn’t sure powerful is the best word for it.  Lucretia has never meant to grow powerful.  She had no gift for arcane arts, no drive to transmute or transport or set things aflame.

She was only ever a lonely little girl who sat in the park with a notebook and pen, chronicling the people who walked past, imagining why their lives might be worth living.  And then, somewhere in between signing up for a two-month mission to the stars and founding a Bureau dedicated to protection, her stories grew lives of their own.  They grew horns, they grew thorns, they grew fields of stars.  She learned magic because it seemed logical, learned leadership because it seemed necessary, learned betrayal because it seemed inevitable.

The words from her pen have shape, now.  They have color, they have dimension, they have weight.  She is telling stories not for herself, not for the sake of remembering, but for the sheer hope and joy of the telling.  Her stories have inspired a world to stand and fight – and any spell she cast only worked because her friends stood behind her.

(It is not that she is underestimating herself so much as it is that she is evaluating, evaluating, running her experiences through three rounds of writer-reader-reincarnation as she stands still.)

And so Lucretia rolls that epithet around in her mouth, most powerful person I’ve ever met, as the boys ask their great deity about some soft drink.  The epithet weighs heavy on her tongue.  If she were to wear it, like a dark blue cloak or a bright red robe, it would hang ever so slightly too loose.  Most prolific would fit better, she thinks.  Or perhaps most selfish – driving an entire world for ten years in order to give her friends exactly the life she thought they deserved.  She’d even take most determined.

But most powerful, that is what the deity gave her.  She’d argue, if she was not concerned that arguing would tip the scales of some unspoken negotiation currently in play for the fate of the world.  (She can let the Tres Horny Boys handle that one – they were always better at improvisation.)

Most powerful.  It’s not too bad, really, Lucretia decides.  A little too heavy, a little too loose, but she can write herself into it.

 

After everything, Lucretia rereads her journal.

Well, rereads is not the best word for it – you cannot read words that no longer exist as ink on paper, words reincarnated as a stream of consciousness held beside the hearts of every person in the universe.  She rewrites her journal.  Transcribes it, from mind to ink.  Memory is fallible, but words are infinite.

She winces at every misspelling, every slight inaccuracy.  She had been so careful, she thought, but she had been in a hurry when she wrote it, eager to begin searching for the relics after months of helpless inaction.  She wishes, rather illogically, that Fisher had done something – what’s the point of broadcasting your writing to an entire universe if you don’t have spellcheck.  But then, perhaps this is her price to pay.  Everyone in the world knows you can’t spell “cinnamon” without looking it up, in exchange for your friends forgiving you for swallowing a century of their lives.  There are certainly worse deals.

Lucretia pulls herself out of the haze of self-correction and focuses instead on the rereading.  Narratives are only as unreliable as those who read them, and she needs to pull a meaning from her past self right now.  Over a century of fighting, the battle won by any measure, Lucretia left alive with her friends against all odds – what does she do now?

(She was delighted for about two hours, after she returned to the earth’s surface with Taako, Magnus, and Merle.  She opened a bottle of one hundred and fifty year-old grape juice.  But then, she realized her goal of the past century had been met, all her to-do lists were empty, and she locked herself in her office to reread.)

She’s about fifteen pages in when her door explodes open.  Literally explodes – thanks to a small fireball quickly put out by a bucket of water spell.

Lucretia quickly shoves the new journal into her desk to avoid any damage, then swivels to survey the people who will soon be paying for her new door.  It’s Lup and Merle, the former grinning, her red hood thrown back, and the latter covered from head to toe in some kind of glow-in-the-dark paint.

“Luce!  What the fuck are you doing in here!” Lup demands.

“Reading,” Lucretia replies.  “And writing.  Sort-of both.”

Merle looks at her as though she just announced that she gave both of his children records of his sexual history.

“Lucretia.  Luce.  Babe.  Darling.”  Lup floats closer to Lucretia’s desk, her robe flickering faintly.  “As you know, because you were there, we just saved the entire fuckin’ universe.  And now, as you should be able to hear, the most lit rager in BoB history and possibly also IPRE history is going on up top.  So now, I am going to ask you again: what the fuck are you doing.”

“I need to figure out what’s –” Lucretia starts to say.

Lup shakes her head.  “Nope.”

“But I wanted to reread and re –”

“Nah.”

“I have to decide –”

“No.  Look, Lucretia,” Lup says, hovering in a way that makes it appear as though she’s sitting on top of Lucretia’s desk, right between her tiny succulent and her box of spare pens, “whatever nerd bullshit you need to do, it’s important, I get it.  But it will all still be here in the morning.  This party will not.  So come on – I can’t drink like this, and someone has to show these B-oh-B nerds how it’s done.”

“If you come up and join us, I’ll give you some of my party points,” Merle adds.

Lucretia looks at her friends, then at her journals.  She needs to know what to do next – but maybe she’ll be in a better headspace to figure that out in the morning.

“Come onnn,” Lup whines.  “Barry pulled out his old Starblaster playlist, and when we left it was like two songs away from Mr. Brightside.”

Lucretia stands and shakes off her old blue robe, then offers her arm to Merle.

“Alright, lead the way.”

 

(Lucretia is writing this story, and so she rewrites herself Madam Director: a woman who summons giants with her little finger and cooks gumbo for her entire moonbase on Candlenights.  She is casting Shield of Faith around this world, and she never intends to stop.)

 

Madam Director knocks on the door of the best apartment on the moon base, two weeks after the day of Story and Song.

Her knock is quiet, but firm.  Two sharp raps echoing through mahogany and reverberating back, culminating into a dull thud when the door swings open and hits the wall behind it.

Lucretia smiles when she sees the person standing in the doorway – it’s precisely who she came here for.

“Hey, Magnus,” she says.  “Remember when you gave me that coupon for one free back rub?”

 

Angelica is sitting in a coffeeshop hunched over her final paper for Musical Narrative when she sees her.

That can’t be Lucretia.  It can’t.  There’s no way the Bureau of Benevolence director, writer of over two hundred journals, and savior of the known multiverse would just waltz into a tiny place near some out-of-the-way bardic college to get a cup of coffee.  The chances of this are basically one billion to one.

And yet… Angelica keeps peering over her stacks of folders and notebooks and texts, over her empty tea mugs and muffin plates and discarded pencils, and every time she looks she becomes a little more convinced.  The woman has that same close-cropped white hair, that same long nose and regal features, that same silvery necklace even, as the picture of Lucretia on the back of the Stolen Century journals she published.  If this isn’t her, it must be a damned good lookalike.

Well, Angelica tells herself.  There’s only one way to know for sure.

Angelica makes a quick trip to the bathroom, pees even though she doesn’t really need to, unpins and re-pins her bun four or five times, rereads the Taako aphorism someone wrote in pink marker just above the mirror.  And then, she ventures up to the table of a woman who may or may not be Lucretia, like the Starblaster settling down on a new world.

“Hi,” she says.  Her voice is too low, mumbling.  “I hope this isn’t too rude of me to ask, but… Are you Lucretia?”

The woman puts down her coffee cup and examines Angelica carefully, as though she is a particularly well-crafted metaphor.

“I am,” she replies.  “And you are?”

“Angelica Kami.”

And then, the woman smiles – a wide, brilliant smile, bright as the birth of a universe.

“Get comfortable, Angelica Kami,” Lucretia, Bureau of Benevolence director, writer of over two hundred journals, and savior of the known multiverse, says.  “I’m buying you coffee.”