Isaac stood and stared at him. "Am I losing what's left of my mind, or are you talking about time travel?"
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"There's no such thing as time travel," Bishop said.
"In the same way that there's no such thing as magic?"
Isaac raised a fist in the air. "Yes! I finally took you by surprise! That felt great."
Bishop raised an eyebrow. "I think Harmon Blake is rubbing off on you."
"Maybe so. All right, tell me what to do."
"You cannot travel in time, because you are already there. Wherever you need to go along your arc, you already exist in that when. You only need a means of navigation. You need to construct and use a map of yourself and your arc, and then guide yourself back to the point where you wish to close the circle. You will want as much of a stimulus-free environment as possible for this. It will make things easier."
"Well, that's not here," Isaac said, looking around. "In fact, that's not much of anywhere I can think of. Maybe if I went back to the College, convinced Dr. Rider to let me back in the Creature..." He made a face.
"That would be your ideal choice?"
"Yes, I think so. I guess. That's about as stimulus-free as you can get. Can you get me back there?"
"There is no need." Bishop raised his eyebrows. "You are there already. You never left." He held a hand up to Isaac's eyes.
-shit, shit, shit! I'm still in the Creature! This was all a dream, a hallucination, shit, shit!-
Floating in darkness-
Wait. Wait. Breathe. If you got back here, you can get back there.
-if it wasn't just a hallucination and I'm not losing my mind, oh god, oh god, I feel sick-
Okay. Let's operate on the assumption that we're not losing our mind. Even if we are, might as well give this a shot.
All right. Okay. Okay.
I seem to be a verb. Ha. So that's what it means.
He floated in darkness, untethered from any sense of time or space. Vertigo clawed at the back of his mind. He ignored it.
I think I'm going to have to rethink a lot of my ideas.
You know what this means?
It meant nothing was ever done. Nothing was ever gone. He could trust none of his assumptions anymore- not about time, not about consciousness, not about himself-
This is what it means to be a magician, he thought. You destroy all the maps you've ever made, and build a new one for yourself. Yeesh.
So think. Build a map.
It came so easily that for a moment he reeled, thrown off-balance by how clear the image was. He would have to file that away for later consideration.
Been here before. Been here forever.
It was something like an endless, spiralling chain, defined- like the rings of a tree- by its changes. He could navigate along it, stop at prominent points in his recent life- graduation from the College, his first kill, his fight with Liam- or sift through the gradations of day-to-day change, pull them out like files from a cabinet.
I wonder...could I go further along? See the future?
He craned back to look up along the spiral, and yes, there were further links along the chain, but looking up at those unknown heights brought the vertigo back full-force. He felt himself losing his grip, and looked away fast.
You want to lose yourself entirely? I think you could, you know...just drift away into the Void...
He shivered again.
-scrubbed a hand down his face. "Jesus. What am I even doing here?"
Sandra looked back at him. "Liam does that," she said. "Just takes your life, and takes, and takes. You might want to think about what the hell you want, Isaac. Yeah?"
"Does this mean you're fucking off?" Liam said.
Isaac looked at him. "Do you want me to?"
"Great. Thanks. If I wanted to get back to Lensmoor from here, how would I do it?"
Liam said nothing.
"Right. So I guess I'm staying here-
Isaac opened his eyes.
Bishop stood, arms folded, looking at him.
"Done," Isaac said.
"Well. Good." Isaac ran a hand through his hair. "I think I need to go do something cult, canny, and scrutable for a while. This stuff is really freaking me out."
Bishop looked interested. "What will you do?"
It was Isaac's turn to raise his eyebrows. "You mean you don't already know?"
"Contrary to popular opinion, I don't actually know everything." Bishop made a show of buffing his nails on his shirt. "But I would appreciate if you didn't spread that around."
Isaac grinned. "Your secret's safe with me." He paused. "I think, for starters, Liam and I are going to take a vacation. Go out and see what there is to see. That sort of thing."
"Then," Isaac said. "We're going to find Sandra." His eyes gleamed. "She's alive out there somewhere, Bishop. I can feel her. I felt her when I opened my mind to Liam, like a shadow on my consciousness. I don't know if she's our Sandra or not- maybe she thinks Sandra was a dream. Maybe Sandra was her dream. But I think she's out there. And we're going to find her."
"I don't know." Isaac smiled. "I'm starting to understand what the Society is about. Maybe we'll see what we can do to help."
Bishop nodded. "Until then," he said, and put out his hand.
Isaac shook it. "Until then." He turned and started toward the gate. Halfway there, he turned back. "Bishop?"
"Blake said something vague and portentous the Professor. What happened to him?"
"The Professor," Bishop said. "Is one of us. A member of the Society. The person you met was a persona. An act, designed to further the unfolding of your- and Liam's- Will. He takes a more hands-on approach to these matters. And he enjoys playing characters." Bishop paused. "I believe he now understands the price one pays for getting too deeply involved."
"I'll bet he does." Isaac scowled. "I'll never be able to deal with him again, no matter what his intentions were." He blew out a long breath. "You're all crazy, you know that?"
"The only saving grace," Isaac said. "Is that I'm probably crazy too." He raised his hand. "See you around, Bishop."
Blake and Erin were waiting for them at the crossroads. Both had brought parting gifts. Blake had a new pair of goggles for Liam, whose previous pair were gone beyond recovery in Knightsbridge. Erin handed two things to Isaac. The first was a brown paper bag with a number of chocolate chip cookies tucked inside.
"I didn't make them," Erin said when Isaac looked up, amused. "I just put them in a bag. Everyone likes chocolate chip cookies."
The other thing turned out to be a slip of paper with a string of numbers written on it. "My comm address," Erin said. "Give me a call sometime. Don't be a stranger."
Isaac grinned. "Your phone number, already? Does this mean we're dating?"
She returned his grin. "Guess you'll have to visit sometime and find out, won't you?"
"Just head into the mist from here when you go," Blake said. "Haven's pretty much connected to everywhere."
Isaac nodded. "Thanks." He offered his hand, and Blake shook it.
They made their goodbyes all around, then started down the path toward the wilderness. Halfway down, Liam stopped and turned to wave. Blake and Erin waved back.
"You're not turning sentimental on me, are you?" Isaac said.
"Could be," Liam said. He slipped the goggles on and settled them over his eyes. "Think I deserve a bit of sentimentality, considering."
"I can accept that." Isaac looked over at him. "You don't really need the glasses, you know. I don't think anyone's going to start a riot if you don't have them?"
Liam shrugged. "I've got used to wearing them, I suppose."
"Ah. I see."
Liam looked over at him. "What?"
"Nothing." Isaac contrived to look innocent. "Nothing."
"No, what?" Liam smiled. "Don't they make me look dashing and rogueish?"
"They make you look," Isaac said. "Like you've got something you need to weld."
"Ah. Well." Liam appeared to consider this. "I could live with that."
Isaac shook his head, grinning. "All right. Sure. Whatever makes you happy."
They walked for a while in silence, leaving behind the sunlit glades of Haven and entering into the white, shrouding mists that lay across the land before them. The path they had been following became a dirt track. A little further ahead, the dirt track dissolved into high grass.
Isaac stopped at the end of the track. "Well," he said. "Here we are."
"Here we are."
Liam crossed his arms. "Up to you."
"All right." Isaac pointed. "That way."
"And that way is...?"
"Not a clue. Want to find out?"
Liam looked around. His mouth quirked, as if he were thinking. He turned back to Isaac. "Yeah. All right."
They walked into the mist.
Liam began to hum, low at first, then slowly rising as they disappeared into the enveloping cloud. Long after their shapes had faded away, his voice floated back; a ghostly presence, echoing in the places between worlds.
"Bear with me...my best is yet to come...and I am a liar...with a lot of material..."
EPILOGUE: Why Don't You Close Your Eyes and Reinvent Me?
The power was out, but they didn't mind. The harsh overhead light had been replaced by half a dozen candles, purchased from the hotel's owner for what Isaac suspected was a ridiculously high mark-up. They cast a mellow semicircle of light around the two of them. Outside, the thunderstorm- a staple of summer weather here, according to the landlord- marched across the hills, rolling and booming as it came. They didn't mind that, either. The weather was still warm, and the lashing rain made the little room seem even more cozy.
Isaac couldn't remember the name of the town. He was sure he'd seen it on their way in, but it had slipped his mind. Didn't matter. It was one of a succession of towns and cities they had passed through in their travels. They were making their way outward, though neither knew exactly where out was in the patterns of the Multiverse, nor what they expected to find or do there. They just wanted to keep moving.
Away from Knightsbridge. Away from Haven. Away from the Empire, the Society, the myriad intrigues that would draw them in and place them on the Grand Chessboard.
Out into the borderlands, the places between places. Out. Away. Not forever...but for a while.
They sat cross-legged, facing each other, their knees almost touching. The firelight cast their shadows on the wall in dancing, distorted shapes. They looked at one another.
"All right," Isaac said. "Ready?"
Isaac held his hands up in front of him, palms out. Liam did the same, matching him, so that they were palm-to-palm, almost- but not quite- touching.
"Can you feel me?" Isaac said. "My presence?"
Liam's brow furrowed. "I think so..."
"Good. Focus on it. Hold that wavelength. Here I go."
Isaac concentrated on his hands. It wasn't difficult. The changes were getting easier all the time, as if that part of him were a muscle, growing stronger as it was used more frequently. His fingers elongated, stretching only a couple of inches out of normal. Isaac relaxed, and they snapped back.
"Did you feel that?" He said.
Liam nodded, slowly. "I think...I think I did...yeh, I did."
"Good. Grab onto that feeling. Focus on it. Ride it back and use it. I'll help you."
Liam's brow furrowed even further as he concentrated. He stared at his own hands, which had begun to shake.
"Don't tense up," Isaac said. "Just channel it. Like a current. Be a conduit. Breathe."
Liam breathed out, and as Isaac watched, the tips of Liam's own fingers grew longer. Just a little, but it was there. It was real. A moment later, they returned to normal.
Liam looked up, wonder in his eyes. "Did you...?"
"Nope. That was all you." Isaac took hold of Liam's hands. "I was right. It can be taught."
Liam's eyes were wide. "Oh my god..."
"No," Isaac said. "Not yet. But I think we're a little bit closer."
And he smiled.
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.