They followed a long, winding lane past a glittering, blinking line of arcades. Isaac looked up at the sign over the arched doorway.
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It read: Moonage Daydream
He laughed. "Of course it does."
Liam looked over at him. "Hm?"
"Nothing, sorry. Well, actually, here's a question. Why don't you have a mobile? I mean, I know you probably can't place interworld calls or anything-"
"Actually, you can."
"You're fucking with me."
Liam held up a hand. "On my honor. Bloke named Thompson Locke figured it out ages ago, and the STC people have taken it in a thousand directions. Don't ask me how it works."
"Smushville Telephone Company. Don't ask."
"All right," Isaac said. "So what about it? Why don't you just call Bishop? Hell, with the whole time-thing and realities-thing, you have access to high technology, right?"
"I think I can see where this is headed-"
"Well, why not? Why not bring up Bishop on your holo-gear? Or go into VR and meet him in a virtual lounge?"
"Several reasons," Liam said. "Turn right here."
They passed a tall iron gate half-hidden by ivy and climbing bushes, then started up a raised, winding street.
"First, any system- including a bloody 'VR' system- is a map. A picture of the territory. You know what happens when you take a picture of a picture of a picture? What you end up with might look something like the original, but I wouldn't put money on it. Sure, the Society and the College have systems you'd call 'VR', though 'virtual reality' is a bloody stupid phrase that doesn't actually mean anything, and what they have has loads of uses. But making maps of maps isn't one of them. Why go to the trouble of simulating the taste of a plum when you've got one to hand?"
"I'm not sure I agree with that, but go on."
The street rose further, supported by baroque metal pillars set into the ground at regular intervals. Ivy wound into the iron rails, meeting above their heads to form a thin canopy of foliage. To Isaac, the street felt oddly like a tunnel.
"Second, instant communication is like anything. Useful in the right places, right dangerous in others. If I've an earbud that connects me directly to to Bishop, what's to stop me from consulting him every time something comes up? How long do you think I can do that before my first automatic response to trouble is to think of calling him? And then I've set up a hierarchy again, and bollocks to all of it."
They passed through a turnstile, and Isaac saw that they were on a long, raised platform of white stone. Other people, vague and indeterminate, milled around the front of the platform, where a sleek single track curved past on its way to points unknown.
"This is a train station," Isaac said. Then: "That sounded idiotic. Of course it's a train station."
"Mono, actually," Liam said. "Anyway. We'll go by Midport someday, maybe, and you can see what a wired-in world looks like. We're off the grid, us, and that's as it should be. The Society is all about operating outside the Master Game."
"Which is what, exactly?"
Liam turned to look at him. "Wot?"
"The Master Game." He pronounced it with capitals, like Liam had. "What's that?"
Liam gestured vaguely around them.
"Don't give me that," Isaac said. "You didn't mean 'everything'." He imitated the gesture. "You said the Society operates outside the Master Game-"
"I said they like to operate outside it."
"Fine. Sure. So what is it? What's going down out there, Liam?"
There came a long, low whistle, pitch shifting upward as it dopplered toward the listeners. The platform began to thrum beneath their feet.
"That depends who you ask."
"I'm asking you."
The train pulled into the station like a liquid bullet, moving so fast the compartments seemed to blur together into single long windowdoor. A lowering of the deep whistle, and the mono slowed smoothly to a halt in front of the platform.
"I don't like getting tied to this sort of thing."
"Too fucking bad, Liam. I'm asking for a straight answer-"
"To a non-Euclidean question."
"Quit fucking dodging me!"
They stared at one another.
"And take off those fucking sunglasses."
"Do you want an answer to your original question or not?"
"What I think is going on out there," Liam said. "Is that there are some people who think people should be controlled. And some who don't."
The doors whooshed open, and they got on the mono. The interior was done in shades of deep blue and grey that put Isaac in mind of cold northern oceans he had never seen. The doors hissed shut after them. The mono began to move.
"Why won't you take off your sunglasses?"
Liam said nothing.
"What are you afraid of?"
Slowly, very slowly, Liam turned away from the mono window to face him. "You think you know bloody everything, don't you? All ready to put people into boxes and assign them categories based on your own half-arsed ideas about how you think things ought to work. You probably grew up an only child, didn't you?"
"Playing out behind the house with your da's toolbox, thinking you'd build yourself a little ferris wheel with bits of wood and rusted chain. No, this isn't telepathy. You're just fucking transparent, mate. I can smell it on you. You probably spent your teen years taking long walks around your hometown, or locked in your room, thinking of all the big things you'd be doing when you got out. Not actually making plans, just thinking vaguely about how much smarter you were than your mates, and wanking to bleary old photos in the back of fetish mags. And that was your world. But you fucking know everything. A few compressed years in the Invisible College, and you don't even know half of what you know, but still you've got it figured out. Christ. I like you, Isaac, and even I know acting like that makes you a fucking twat."
The mono slid out of the station, gliding over the tops of gothic buildings, future tech, shifting pseudo-landscapes, hanging gardens, monolithic statues, crossing highways. They moved with it, alone in the car, the city-that-wasn't-a-city passing them by.
Time passed. Or seemed to.
"I'm sorry," Isaac said.
"It's your business, not mine."
"What it is, things are just closer to the surface here. Ideal self, my bollocks."
"Just the word they use."
"People. Magicians. You know. They."
"All right. But I still don't know what you're talking about." He looked down at himself. "It's just...us."
"Don't take this the wrong way, but...when was the last time you had a wee?"
Isaac stared at him. "Back at the Nine Points. While you were outside with Sandra. Why?"
"When did you last have an itch? Or something in your eye? When did you last feel cold, or hungry, or in need of a shower? When did you last sweat? Sometime before you stepped through the Gate, right?"
Isaac was still staring at him.
"Look at yourself now," Liam said. He pointed toward their ghostly reflections in the mono glass. "You look exactly the way you think you look. When does that ever happen? You always look a bit different than you think- a little haggard, a bit more lopsided, nose a bit different- something. Feel the way your clothes fit, the way your shoes fit: Perfect. Everything in place."
Isaac stared at his reflection in the glass. Vertigo suddenly welled up inside him, black and all-consuming. He half-stepped, half-fell away from the glass, putting one hand up to shield his eyes.
Liam caught him. "You all right?"
Isaac got to his feet. He put a hand to his head. "I don't know. Sorry. I was looking at my reflection, and all of the sudden I felt like I was in two places at once-"
"When you weren't really anywhere at all?"
Isaac looked at him. "...yeah."
"Be careful with mirrors," Liam said. "That's true everywhere, but here especially. Buggardly things are tricksy." He took a cigarette from a case in his pocket and lit it.
The mono whisked them silently past a baroque cityscape.
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.