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about the author…
Tim Pratt lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife, Heather Shaw and their son River. His fiction and poetry have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Strange Horizons, Realms of Fantasy, Asimov’s, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Subterranean, and Tor.com, among many other places (for complete details, see his bibliography).
His debut collection Little Gods was published in November of 2003. His second collection, Hart & Boot & Other Stories, appeared in January 2007, and was a World Fantasy Award finalist. Third collection Antiquities and Tangibles and Other Stories appeared in 2013.
First novel The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl was published in late 2005. It was nominated for the Mythopoeic Award, and won a Romantic Times Critic’s Choice Award for best Modern Fantasy, and an Emperor Norton Award (which has the coolest trophy ever: a bust of Joshua Norton).
about the narrator…
Rachael K. Jones is a science fiction and fantasy author, and the co-editor of Podcastle. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Strange Horizons, PodCastle, the Drabblecast, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, and Penumbra. She has a degree in English and is currently pursuing a second degree in Speech-Language Pathology. She lives in Athens, GA with her husband and perpetual alpha reader, Jason.
You can follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.
by Tim Pratt
If you find yourself squatting over a pit toilet while wearing stiletto heels, you’ve made a few bad choices at some point during the evening. I could have taken off my shoes, but then I’d be barefoot, in the woods, in the half-light of a lantern dangling from a tree branch, standing in whatever you can expect to find on the ground around an artisanal hand-excavated poop hole.
Apparently there was a fashion for high-and-low cultural juxtapositions in this particular dimensional node, hence a full fancy-dress party being held in and around a homemade earth-and-sod house lit only by torches. The hors d’oeuvres were processed cheese foam sprayed on mass-produced crackers, served on silver platters passed around by leggy supermodels dressed in hair shirts and stinking rags, plus prune-wine brewed in a ramshackle still and passed around in crystal goblets. Let me tell you something: prune wine goes right through you, so I didn’t even have to pretend I needed to use the facilities when the time came to get in position.
The pit toilet was well back in the woods, some distance behind the sod house, but it nevertheless came equipped with a scrupulously polite bathroom attendant–he was standing on the lowest branch of a nearby tree–dressed in a green velvet tuxedo and prepared to offer towels, breath mints, and cocaine on demand. Interdimensional travel is often way more boring than you’d expect, but this was not one of the boring times.
Earlier, when I was mingling among the partygoers–the worst human beings this node had to offer–a guy wearing a moth mask had lunged over to me drunkenly, tried to touch my cheek and slurred, “Your skin . . . so beautiful . . . like porcelain . . .”
I’d knocked his hand aside and said, “My skin is like the stuff toilets are made out of?” Proving that I’d had a way overly optimistic idea about the quality of the local toilets.
My business done, I scuttled away from the pit, tugged my rather ephemeral underwear back up around my hips, and pushed down my iridescent black dress, wondering how long I could plausibly pretend to be adjusting my garments before the attendant got suspicious about my loitering. Then I heard the sound of a human badly imitating an owl, which was both a good and a lousy signal to use in this node, since owls had been hunted to extinction here in a weird sports-and-dining craze some years earlier.
I reached into my purse for a can of aerosolized knock-out gas and sprayed it into the toilet attendant’s face. He fell over, spilling cocaine and mints everywhere. Before I could blow out the lantern, a man wearing a skintight rubber outfit that covered his entire body except his crotch and ass appeared from around a tree, coming to avail himself of the facilities, and I sprayed him, too. Luckily the nostril-holes, which were the only openings in his mask/hood combo, allowed sufficient airflow to knock him out, too. He fell upon the unconscious attendant in a way that formed a rather suggestive tableau, but I mean, how could he not?
Then I blew out the lantern, and my light-compensating contact lenses (acquired in a better universe than this one) kicked in, giving me creepy green night vision. I could clearly see my partner and our prisoner approaching through the trees. (Okay, senior partner, but I refuse to be called “sidekick” or “assistant” or “Gal Friday” or “padawan” or any of the other crap Kirtley tries on me).
Kirtley was presenting as female tonight, mostly, with blown-out blonde hair and significant bosoms, but with a little five o’clock shadow, too, just by way of fucking with the gender binary essentialists. Kirtley comes from a world where body modification is pretty much as common as dying your hair, and Kirtley claims not even to remember Kirtley’s own original birth sex–if it even fell firmly to one side or the other–and always marks “Not Applicable” on forms that ask for gender, generally just prior to setting the forms on fire, because seriously, you think we go around filling out forms? (In case you’re wondering, the only acceptable pronoun for Kirtley is “Kirtley” so get used to seeing that word. Kirtley Kirtley Kirtley.) Kirtley was frog-marching the party host, a brutal pink-haired warlord named Princess Stephanie, who’d dressed for tonight’s celebration of conquest in a gown of shimmering green silk accented by a string of “pearls” carved from the bones of her vanquished foes. Stephanie was groggy, presumably drugged, but not so insensible that she couldn’t carry her own weight, more or less.
“Portal, please,” Kirtley said, and I tossed the marble into the pit toilet and counted “one-two-three.”
The telltale “pop” of displaced air told me the portal was open, and when I looked into the pit I saw a shimmering blue horizon, thankfully above the level of the pool of pee-and-poop at the bottom of the hole. I jumped in, emerging in the wrong orientation and rolling through the tall grass as my momentum sorted itself out. I was followed a moment later by the jumbled tangle of Princess Stephanie’s cattywampus limbs. Kirtley managed to sort of sidle through the portal and didn’t even lose Kirtley’s balance in the process. Annoying as hell, but Kirtley had been at the interdimensional-secret-agent thing a lot longer than I had. I’d get the knack of being smooth in all situations someday.
Kirtley reached through the portal and plucked the magic marble–which was neither magic nor a marble–then tossed it to me. I never understood how you could reach into another dimension and pull the doorway to that dimension out–it seemed like pulling a hole out of a hole–but whenever I demanded an explanation Kirtley just rolled Kirtley’s eyes and said “Science.”
Princess Stephanie groaned, and I pondered the array of movement-control techniques I had at my disposal, but there was no need: Kirtley was already pulling the retgun from its undimensional hiding place, drawing forth the long-barreled, absurd-looking weapon from its invisible holster in a fold of twisted space at Kirtley’s hip. The basic shape of the retgun was consistent–grip, trigger, barrel two feet long–but everything else about it shimmered and shifted, from sci-fi ray gun to Old West shooting iron to steampunk cog-pistol to ritual sidearm of the Ballardian Bleakness Corp to model of a gun carved out of pale white soap. Princess Stephanie blinked up at Kirtley and said “Wha?” in a way that made me wonder how she’d managed to subjugate all those continents, but it’d probably been decades since she’d had to subjugate anything personally; once you reach a certain level, you’ve got people to do the subjugating for you.
“Boom,” Kirtley said, and squeezed the trigger.
This time the retgun emitted a cloud of glitter and sparkles and confetti, hitting the princess full in the face. She sneezed, wiped sparkles out of her eyes, then stood up, groggily, and said, “Damn, I drank too much apple brandy last night. My husbands and wives are going to kill me.” She gave us a little wave, said, “See you at the next hootenanny,” and lurched off across the grass in the general direction of a sprawling farmhouse/compound on a hill. Already my memories of her horrible history of atrocities were starting to fade, replaced by memories of a drunk woman we’d met in a field. If we stayed in this node too long, her contagious backstory would infect my brain entirely, too, and I’d forget all about her true history–though Kirtley was immune to having Kirtley’s memories rewritten, as the one holding the gun.
“You give her a good life?” I asked. “Because she doesn’t much deserve one.”
Kirtley put away the retgun and snorted. “Yeah, I set the phaser to ‘fun.’ Nah, it’s a fairly neutral bit of continuity. She’s still Princess Stephanie deep down, no matter what she thinks her name and backstory are now, so she’ll probably claw her way up to the position of First-Over-Wife in a few months, and from there to Head-of-Household, Island-Inclusive, but the damage she can do is pretty limited in this world. There are only about five thousand humans on this entire island, and the sea is full of ‘monsters’–quasi-sentient area-denial weapons from a war centuries ago–so she won’t be voyaging off to other continents and causing any trouble. Besides, a big group family will have plenty of infighting, backbiting, betrayals, alliances, lies, and scheming, so maybe that’ll keep her occupied.”
“Poor bastards.” I looked up at the farmhouse and thought of them having to deal with the bomb dropped into their lives that was Princess Stephanie, and worse, having her wormed into their memories and personal histories like she’d been there all along.
“The good of the many outweighs the whatever.” Kirtley spat, grinned, and said, “Let’s roll on out of here.”
I tossed the marble and opened a portal to our interdimensional spy/crime-fighter lair, because my life was just exactly that cool.
That was the last of the good old days. Just before the Prime Army came to screw everything up with the truth and its consequences.
There was a guy sitting in Kirtley’s chair right in front of the meta-map console, dressed in a suit of lightweight armor that was heavy on the chrome ornamental spikes, his face painted with red and black tiger-stripes. He flipped through an old-school cardboard folder in his lap for a moment after we popped through the portal, then glanced up at us like we were shifty salesmen interrupting his important spreadsheet bullshit or something.
“Mmm,” he said. “There you are. I am a Profound Imperator of the Prime Army.” He inclined his head toward me. “You are Consuela Inez Gonzalez, AKA ‘The Gen To End All Gens,’ correct?”
I glanced at Kirtley, who was frowning but not throwing slurry bombs or unleashing a brace of collapsible mecha-ferrets, and I decided to keep things civil instead of plucking any of the grape-sized hallucinogenic grenades from my purse. “I don’t know who that Conseula person is, but yeah, I’m The Gen.”
He made a mark in the folder, then glanced at my partner/mentor. “And you are . . . oh, I can’t possibly read off all these aliases and pseudonyms and code names and call signs and noms de guerre. Save that for the trial transcript. What name are you using these days?”
“Kirtley,” Kirtley said curtly. (Sorry, sorry. I promise not to do that sort of thing again.)
“Ah. We don’t have that alias on file. Thank you. You know how the Prime Army values the completeness of its records.”
“You should leave,” Kirtley said, and took out the retgun. “Unless you want to be . . . oh, how about our butler?”
“We could totally use a butler,” I said. “I am really sick of having to do all the butling around here myself. I buttle my butt off.” Kirtley says wordplay is the lowest form of humor and I say what the hell does Kirtley know and then I kick him in the shins.
The Profound Imperator looked around our totally sweet cave, lit by floodlights set at dramatic angles among the stalactites, the whole place stuffed with high-tech gear liberated from a thousand dimensions, and did a full lip-curling sneer. “This cluttered void doesn’t need servants. It needs to be filled with concrete. It’s a sinkhole waiting to happen. But that’s moot. The two of you are now in the custody of the Prime Army, answering for crimes that include–”
“You have no authority here,” Kirtley said.
“Wherever I go, I carry the full authority of the Prime Army. Which is actual authority, backed by actual force, unlike your own. Now, please, allow me to read the charges–”
“Butler it is.” Kirtley squeezed the trigger, and the retgun emitted a sound like a dinner bell ringing, and I waited for the memories to flood in, reminding me that this tiger-faced dude was our butler, had always been our butler, complete with colorful and plausible backstory about why he was dressed like such a moron, probably as some sort of penance or because he’d lost a profoundly ill-considered bet.
Instead the Profound Imperator just yawned, totally ostentatiously, complete with patting his mouth with the palm of his gauntleted hand and then stretching his arms over his head. “Please. The retgun’s powers depend on displacement, Kirtley. You can’t endow me with psychically contagious backstory unless there is a complete absence of contradictory information in the local node. In any informational conflict, the facts as they exist in reality will always win out over your feeble attempt to retroactively weave me into the local continuity. And since this world is filled with records about me, and populated by scores of my inferiors and servants and subjects and employees and helpmeets and slaves and assistants and who all have very clear memories about me, your feeble attempt to press-gang me into your pathetic ego circus is pointless.”
Kirtley didn’t freak out or anything, but the impenetrable façade cracked a little. The retgun disappeared back into its invisible holster. “We’ve only been gone for two days,” Kirtley said. “You can’t possibly have that much infrastructure in place here already–”
“When the Prime Army decides to occupy a node, we don’t delay. This world is rich in timber, fossil fuels, and delicious megafauna. I haven’t been able to get mammoth steaks in the capitol for weeks. And with no noticeably sentient land-dwellers to oppose our arrival? It’s low-hanging fruit. That this node happened to contain your hideaway was merely a happy accident.” The Professional Impenetrator stood up, and I stepped back, because that guy was at least seven feet tall. “A word of advice, ‘Kirtley.’ If you’re ever a wanted fugitive in the future, you might try hiding in a world with some other sentient creatures and technological artifacts? The energy signature of your little bat-cave here was visible on our first cursory scan. You’d have been better off hiding in the sewers beneath a teeming metropolis.”
“Run,” Kirtley said, and then Kirtley hurled the mecha-ferrets and triggered the sonic screamers in the heels of Kirtley’s boots and activated the collapsible ceiling and the biometric conditional trapdoors and called down the cyber-bats from their hidden ceiling holes and launched the remote flash-bang flares and all that other stuff. It was like an earthquake in a blender in an ambulance with a shrieking siren in a volcano at a rabies-infested petting zoo and we ran like hell and hit the escape chutes (I’d always hated polishing the slides, because I never saw the point, but here we were, Kirtley’s bullcrap validated once again).
We landed on the spongy bed of moss outside at the base of the slide and found ourselves surrounded by a full metric cohort of the Prime Army, complete with bioengineered venomous weevil-tanks and weaponized ice-lizards and, of course, a whole lot of guys in goofy armor with very practical-looking guns.
“Don’t listen to anything they tell you,” Kirtley said as they shackled us, taking away my purse, the jerks. I had some gum in there, and also explosives.
“Right,” I said. “The Prime Army are a bunch of treacherous liars.”
“Well, no,” Kirtley said. “They’ll probably tell you the truth. They don’t usually bother to lie. Which is why I’d really rather you didn’t listen.”
Kirtley is a field operative for the Sublime Union of Ethical Anarchy and Sustainable Hedonism (SUE-ASH), a non-hierarchical Em-Banksian collective of augmented supergeniuses who live in a heavily-shielded node that’s all smart matter and Dyson spheres and Ringworlds and Leafworlds and computronium and sentient stars and uplifted intelligences, where the cockroaches are as smart as third graders and the third graders are as smart as weakly godlike Rosenbaumian AIs, and the AIs look like kinetic sculptures and take care of all practical matters with a cheerfully whimsical nonchalance, all while inventing new sexual board games in their spare time. After the cool vast impish intellects there discovered the principles behind the Seagroves-Raschke exotic matter bridge and learned how to travel to parallel universes, they decided to spread their ethos of personal freedom and really good designer drugs and beating up fascists (because you can beat up fascists without feeling guilty about it) across the known multiverse. Kirtley found me in a particular shithole of a dimension where malevolent clockwork robots ruled the few remnants of the human race–Kirtley was in full tough-guy-boy-drag then, helping to lead the rebels, pretending to be a refugee from the faraway Garbage Archipelago, and Kirtley saw something in me. (What Kirtley saw was that I’m awesome. I could make improvised explosive devices out of the guts of active clockwork soldiers without them even realizing it. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but I was a fine blower-up-er of things.) After we reduced the clockwork men to cogs and gears and rubble, Kirtley showed me the marble and asked if I’d like to join Kirtley in making life miserable for assholes across the multiverse. The alternative was to help found a new democratic government and rebuild the wreckage of a world that had been altered to fit the whims of insane military automatons, and I’ve never been a big fan of cleaning things up, so I told Kirtley I was in.
“That is all complete nonsense,” the Profound Imperator said, rolling his eyes at me across the interrogation table. “Fabrication, confabulation, and outright lies.”
“What do you know about it, Professor Imp?” I wasn’t shackled or anything anymore, but they’d taken the pointy chopsticks out of my hair, and my spiked heels, and my hollow ring with the needle full of knockout drops, because I could use them as weapons, but it wasn’t like I didn’t have other weapons. “The Prime Army is the greatest enemy of SUE-ASH in the multiverse. Your entire government is a military dictatorship, the opposite of everything they stand for!”
“We are a meritocratic oligarchy, actually,” he said. “But close enough. There’s no such thing as SUE-ASH, though, is what I’m trying to tell you. Kirtley, as you call him, made the whole thing up. It’s imaginary. An anarchist techno-utopia full of benevolent wisecracking AIs? They say anything that can exist does exist somewhere in the multiverse, but I haven’t ever seen anything like that.”
I stuck my fingers in my ears and said “LA LA LA LA LA” but the bastard waited me out. My attention span has never been that great so I unplugged my ears after a while. “Okay,” I said at last. “Fill my mind with your poisonous lies.”
He returned to his folder, though it was looking more like a prop than an essential font of information. “Kirtley was an assassin in the employ of the Prime Army, one of the commandos we sent into technologically-advanced nodes in order to soften up resistance with a few targeted executions. Kirtley was consistently one of our most dependable and efficient operatives, at least until he had a crisis of conscience. He continued performing sadistic renditions acceptably for a couple of years into that crisis–we began to monitor him closely when his psychological evaluations showed spikes in the empathy area–but the zeal was gone. He continued out of momentum or laziness or lack of imagination, I suppose. Then the S/R bridge he was using on an assignment glitched–it happens sometimes–and sent him into an unsurveyed universe, specifically into the ruins of some kind of alien colony from the vastness of deep time, where he discovered the psychic manipulator you call the ‘rotgun’–”
“Rotgun? It’s the retgun. The retcon gun. The retroactive continuity gun.”
“Oh,” he said, and made another note in his folder. “I assumed, because it rots minds, sort of–never mind. Your way makes more sense. We’ve had to piece all this together from secondhand accounts and spotty surveillance, you understand. At any rate, once he acquired the retgun he began relocating his targets instead of killing them.”
This was some pretty world-shaking stuff as far as accusations go–we weren’t operatives of a secret utopian spy organization, Kirtley was a killer, what the eff–so I focused on the shreds of good news I could find. “I bet that drove you psychopaths crazy, Kirtley letting people live instead of slaughtering them as a warning to your enemies.”
“We’re pragmatic.” He shrugged. “Once we realized what Kirtley was doing, we stopped assigning him the people we wanted gruesomely murdered as grim tokens of our unspeakable power, and started sending him after people we just wanted removed, by whatever means. He was still a good asset, for a long time, in that capacity. And then . . . he met you.”
“You keep saying ‘he,’ but Kirtley’s not a he, Kirtley’s a Kirtley.”
“That’s true,” the Profound Imp said. “He comes from the planet Varley Eight, in the Russ node, and they outgrew gender binaries centuries before the Prime Army took over. Our organization is very progressive about social issues that don’t negatively impact our bottom line, and so we accept the fluid continuum of gender expression. I just say ‘he’ because I’m lazy and because it annoys you.”
“Oh, well, as long as that’s the reason. So Kirtley changed after meeting me, huh? Kirtley always said I had a good effect on Kirtley–”
“You certainly had some kind of effect. After he took you under his wing, he became an anarchist. Pried our surgical trackers out of his muscles, fried his blood-borne homing nanites with Vancean radiation from a dying sun, stole heaps of equipment, and did his best to vanish. And you know, we might have let him go, if he’d simply sauntered off to some unoccupied part of the multiverse to play house with you–the Prime Army is not vindictive, at least not when being vindictive has a poor cost-benefit ratio. But then Kirtley started kidnapping and relocating and retconning people we collaborated with, those useful traitors who help prepare the way for our arrival by turning over control of their cities and governments to us peacefully, removing the necessity to waste ammunition or destroy the resources we wanted to pillage in the first place–”
“Like Princess Stephanie.”
He winced. “You took out Princess Stephanie? That . . . will not improve your chances at trial. Things were in a very delicate stage with her node.”
I shrugged. “So Kirtley embroidered the truth a little when he recruited me.” (I was still holding out hope that there really was a SUE-ASH, an awesome super-science collective kept secret from the Prime Army, with Kirtley as some kind of tricky double-agent, but deep in my brain and somewhat deeper in my heart I suspected it was all bullshit.) “Kirtley’s still on the side of right and life and joy and chaos, and we’ll keep fighting until–”
“Don’t you even want to know who you used to be?” he interrupted. “Before Kirtley kidnapped you away to a foreign node and fired the retgun at you and made you believe you were ‘The Gen,’ sassy superheroine and platonic sidekick?”
“Not especially,” I said, because the very idea of the retgun being used on me opened up a spiraling howling void of profound discomfort at the center of my everything. I’d never even considered that my history might not be my own. If there’s one thing I’ve never lacked it’s self-assurance.
He shrugged. “Fine. Please yourself–I suspect you always do. All we really want, at this point, is to stop Kirtley from wandering around causing trouble–and of course we want the retgun, and the spatial-distortion technology Kirtley also found on that alien base. He made sure to blow it up on his way out, so all we recovered were non-working fragments of wrecked garbage.”
“You don’t have the retgun?” I laughed. “Because you can’t find the holster, of course. Because you don’t have Kirtley’s pocket-dimension/bag-of-holding technology. Oh, man, that’s hilarious. Kirtley will never give up the gun.”
“Oh, we think he will. He clearly has a weakness for you, so we’ll exploit that weakness. We’ll scoop out one of your eyes and slice off your ears in front of him, and from there–”
Well, fuck that noise, am I right? I reached into my own pocket-dimension access hatch, an invisible fist-sized square of nothing at my waist, and pulled something silver-shiny and lethally elegant out. The Pronounced Emptier started to shout, but come on, like I haven’t practiced this quick-draw shit in a million mirrors a billion times? I fired.
My gun wasn’t a retgun. Kirtley gets the retgun. My gun was a regular pistol, filled with blanks. But the blanks were tipped with short-term exotic matter bridge generators, keyed to specific useful universes–like miniature marbles, but they burn out after one use. I’m pretty sure the bridge I hit the Profound Imperator with took him to a world where even the grass is carnivorous. Kind of mean, but it can’t be all jellybeans and rainbows, even when you work for the non-existent secret service of an imaginary utopian/anarchic society.
I twiddled with the spatial field generator at my waist–the controls were invisible, just like the folded space it generates, but you learn to do things by touch–and stepped through an undimensional portal into a ten-by-ten room that’s pretty inexplicably walled in fake wood paneling, with water-spotted acoustic tile on the ceiling and a shag rug that looks like it’s been chewed by goats on the floor. As always, the place gave me the major-major creeps, because it was impossible not to think about what was beyond the walls, which was probably nothing. Not even empty space. And yet, sometimes, there was this horrible low-pitched buzzing, and things tapping on the walls from outside . . . There was a reason we didn’t use the inside of our bag(s) of holding as our lair.
In addition to heaps of miscellaneous crap in boxes, the marble and the retgun were there, hovering docilely in mid-air next to what looked sort of like the mouth of a ventilation shaft high up on the far wall, identical to the shaft on the other side, which I’d arrived through. I reached my hand through the far shaft and poked Kirtley hard in the gut. I heard him grunt. “You alone?” I said.
Another grunt, but it seemed pretty affirmative to me, so why not. I twiddled with the field generator and the ventilation shaft expanded to a me-sized rectangle, and I stepped through.
Kirtley’s holding cell was way scarier than mine, with gore-encrusted hooks on chains dangling from the ceiling and a tray covered in rusty tools and a cage full of mechanically-augmented rats with drillbit teeth. Kirtley was tied to a chair, with pretty limited mobility, which maybe explained why Kirtley hadn’t just snatched the marble from the bag of holding and jackrabbited off to an entirely other universe. Or maybe Kirtley didn’t want to leave me. Who knows?
Kirtley was bleeding from the nose and lip and one of Kirtley’s eyes was getting a pretty good bruise around it, but I didn’t let Kirtley’s sorry-looking state sway me from my irritation.
“Kirtley,” I said curtly (sorry, I did it again, I can’t help myself, last time, I promise), “You are a lying sack of crap and you overwrote my brain with some fake backstory about clockwork tyrants and I don’t even know why I should let you out of here.”
“All those things are true,” Kirtley said. “But in my defense, my mission was to murder you, so overwriting your brain was actually the more merciful approach.”
“Just tell me you made me someone more awesome when you zapped me?”
“You are intrinsically just exactly as awesome as you are,” Kirtley said. “But I gave you a backstory that made for a way better story than the one boring reality wrote for you.”
“So who was I, really? Do I even want to know?”
“You were someone the Prime Army wanted dead. So that speaks pretty highly of your character.”
That much, I knew. I tested a question in my mind and decided to let it out: “Did I leave much behind? I mean . . . did I have a family?”
Kirtley looked away. “Ah. Not. Ah. Not after the other agents of the Prime Army were done with them. No.”
I shook my head and began to untie Kirtley. “You didn’t have the right to do that. To take my memories away.”
“In my further defense, you asked me to. I rescued you from the purge, and you were pretty broken up–you wanted to take revenge, but you didn’t want to have night terrors and a black hole of grief at the center of your being. You asked if I could make you happy, and I said I couldn’t make you anything other than what you were, essentially, but I could make your circumstances better, and see what kind of person you’d be in a different situation, one where you overcame tyrants and kicked ass instead of losing everything you loved. And it turns out: under all that you’re a pretty happy person. And you made me a better person, too–”
“I would find those facts incredibly reassuring, Kirtley, if you hadn’t demonstrated a giant history of lying to me all the time.” I untied the last knot holding him, and he stood up, groaning. I reached into the folded space at his side and snatched out the retgun and the marble both. “I oughta zap you with this thing.”
He nodded solemnly. “Believe me, it’s crossed my mind to ask you to do that very thing. I wouldn’t mind being a different person, sometimes. But I figured one of us should know what the hell is actually going on. I’m sorry I lied about us being secret agents, but it just seemed more cool than revealing that we’re freelance vigilantes making it up as we go along. Plus, you argued with my missions less when you thought they were delivered from some wise AI central control.”
“You’ve lost that trump card, Kirtles. I’ll want a bit more input going forward.”
“Okay. I propose our next plan is to get the hell out of here–”
“Agreed,” I said. “Then maybe we’ll steal a spaceship. Haven’t done that in a while.”
“A joyride could be just the thing to clear our heads–”
Light dawned. I get inspirations like dogs get ticks, and this was a good one. “Nope. I changed my mind. Scratch spaceship theft. We’re going to go out into the multiverse and find a promising node, and then we’re going to establish the Sublime Union of Ethical Anarchy and Sustainable Hedonism. For really reals. It doesn’t look like anybody else is going to get around to founding it, and it’s too good an idea not to make real.”
“How do you propose we do that?”
I brandished the retgun. “We find a bunch of supergeniuses in the gulags of the Prime Army, exfiltrate them to a nice warm universe, and make them think they’re already in the midst of founding the sublime empire.”
“That’s so crazy . . .” Kirtley began.
“That it just might work?”
“I was going to say, ‘just so batshit crazy, really, full stop, that’s all.’ It’s also kind of morally questionable, and I realize I’m an ex-assassin saying that, but still–I don’t mind shooting the retgun at horrible people, but if you want to recruit good people, it seems a bit messed up to force them into a non-consensual continuity–”
“So we’ll stick to evil scientists, then, and retcon in a heel-face-turn in their backstory, a nice little redemption arc, some motivation to change their ways. Or if they’re too deep-down vindictive, we’ll work in some good excuse to overthrow the Prime Army, some personal grudge they have to work out–that’ll make them work harder.”
“As far as plans go, I’ve heard more solid ones . . .”
“It’s not as good as randomly kidnapping tyrants and getting captured by the Prime Army?”
“We weren’t captured for long,” Kirtley said defensively. “And it wasn’t my plan.”
“We need a bigger picture, Kirtley. At least, I do–all this time I thought I had one, that I was working toward a larger goal. If you don’t want to join me, I’ve got the retgun right here, I could make you think you’re joyfully settled down with Princess Stephanie’s extended family, or make you a happy well-adjusted assassin in the Prime Army again, killing for God and country–”
Kirtley harrumphed. “The Prime Army doesn’t believe in God, exactly. They worship the personification of the strong anthropic principle in His aspect as a great armored death beetle–”
“Pretend I am cocking the magical gun and pointing it at your non-magical face,” I said.
“Okay! Okay. I’m in. Why not. Sustainable Hedonism. It’s a noble goal to probably get murdered for.”
“Good.” I holstered the gun. “And from now on, you’re the sidekick. I make the plans. This partnership is officially a Gen-ocracy, starting this very moment. ”
“Now, really, it would be a mistake to ignore my years of practical experience in espionage and survivalism and morally defensible murder–”
“Shut up, Kirtley,” I said curtly, and Kirtley shut up. (Last time. Really.) I dropped the marble and we traveled into the hope of a better world.