Crossing the Frame
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« Previously: I Care Because You Do


If you travelled the multiverse for long enough, you saw the things that never changed no matter where you went. One of those things was inconvenient traffic jams.

As I sat in my idling car waiting for the officers to open up the Way to Flipside, a part of me couldn't help but remind me that I was a goddamned Royal Inquisitor of the Eighth Empire of the Broken Goddess, and that traffic laws were for people without a ten-word title appended to their name: in response, I reminded myself that the better part of valour was "not getting your ass handed to you by every Sarkicist looking for a fight in a fifty-mile radius."

After what felt like hours of sitting in front of the gate waiting for something to happen, one of the guards shambled over and knelt down to rap on my window. Gingerly I wound it down and looked into its beady eyes: its face looked like it'd been salvaged from bits and pieces donated by charitable citizens who'd died fifty years before this thing was born.

The officer coughed and splattered me with phlegm, before clumsily smearing it all over my face with a single limp arm. "Mind showing me your ID, ma'am?" it hissed.

I tried to ignore the acid in the spit currently eating through my face and just flashed him the Inquisitor's badge. In response, it fumbled with the badge and flipped it over almost unintentionally, before handing it back to me and giving me a look of what could've been pity or condescension.

Behind me, trendy crosses between horses, crows and some marine animal I couldn't identify — maybe a dolphin — stomped their hooves and cawed as they sniffed at my tailpipe, as if they were threatening to take a bite out of it. That combined with the weird looks I was getting from the guards made me rev the engine a little harder, drum my fingers on the steering wheel a little faster — it was too early in the day for pity and too early in the case for anything other than anxiety and speculation.

With a dismissive flick of the guard's polyjointed arm I was waved through the entrance, and soon enough I found myself in the giant tunnel known as the Artery Road.

One guess as to why they called it that.

The tunnel was a roughly cylindrical mass of reddish muscle toughened by years of abuse by cars and Orcadian hooves alike. The one distinct feature inside the otherwise vaguely knobbly hundred-foot circle of darkness was a precisely painted dotted line running straight down the road, before stopping just short of the Way itself. Nobody knew who exactly put it there in the first place, but anyone who drove through the road was silently grateful to them. Every so often, someone would veer off the line after one too many drunken orgies; you tended not to hear much about those people aside from long, grisly horror stories.

So I let the troubles of work melt away and focussed on toeing what little I could see of that thin white line, trying not to let the occasional throb of the walls, or the sound of the person behind me cantering on their horse-like abominations throw me too far off the beaten path.

As the car approached the Way, the navigational computer began to strobe on and off and my teeth felt like they were vibrating in their sockets, every cell in my body singing in harmony like tiny tuning forks. The outline of its unspace loomed large before me, my already pathetic-looking headlights totally unable to cut through the blackness that made up its entrance. At the familiar sight I braced internally and shut my eyes: the next part was always the worst.

Every Door has its Knock and every Way has its Price. This Way's particular toll was a half-litre of blood just dropping out of your system and circulating into the unknown depths of the muscles that comprised the Artery Road.

My body hadn't needed blood to function properly for five years and counting at this point in time, yet it still threw every part of my body off-balance when it took its price: first the pricking sensation like a million needles sinking into every part of your body, and then the wave of nausea as the effect of the blood loss sent me into brief shock. When I re-opened my eyes, I opened them not to the crowded pink walls and citadels of Alagadda, but the sleek futurist outlines of Flipside's metal skyline.

A warm summer's breeze was blowing, and it was early in the afternoon. Another quirk of the two worlds being diametric opposites meant that their seasons and days also got flipped: every so often, you'd see the (in)famous Alagaddan crimson snow blowing through the Way as city-wide blizzards howled and railed against the buildings on the other side of the portal.

As for why it was infamous, remember when I said you needed a half-liter of blood to get through the Way?

Trying to relax in my seat and let the auto-pilot take care of the driving, my attempt to laze in the sun was rudely interrupted by a flurry of messages from the Maxwellist intranet that turned the darkness behind my eyelids into an angry sea of flashing red messages I'd missed while I was out. Senders ranged from loose neural net experiments to fellow Inquisitors who'd condescended to use the heretic infrastructure. The thought of the old Luddite Legate-Faithful Brunel being forced to use a terminal was one of the few things to make me smile that day.

A few judicious filters later and I'd whittled the six-figure pile of messages fighting for my attention into a more manageable mess of a thousand or so. Sighing, I flicked through them all, scanning for anything of interest — all of them turned out to be typical mundanity, one-week seminars on theological interpretations of Zipporah at the Forge, updates on the samizdat breakout near the Marble District.

Nothing pressing that another one of the Inquisitors didn't have the jurisdiction or the firepower to handle. I breathed a sigh of relief and instructed the navcomp to take me to an address down in the Orthodoxy-owned part of the city.

As the buildings turned from brutalist steel and concrete buildings to Art Deco factories of brick and brass, I started running through conversational simulations in my mind, reprising old regrets and trying to find a better way to navigate the social minefield that even talking to each other had become in those seven years. Soon enough, though, I gave up on the whole enterprise: I could try to find social maxima and minima all I liked, but eventually I'd have to step out of playing social engineer and actually talk to her.

My reverie was broken by the pleasing chime of the navcomp as it informed me I'd reached my destination. I sighed and forced myself out of the car for the day's first social rigmarole.

Amitha's workshop was a relatively small building amidst the smog-clouded factories that lined the roads in the Orthodoxy's manufacturing district, tucked away in a deep knot of winding alleyways marked out by the conveyor belts that stretched from road to road. It was one of the few buildings that bothered to give a lick of uniqueness to the nondescript fronts mandated by the scripture, in the form of a subtle gold trim on a couple pillars, her name engraved neatly on the front door and some tasteful floral decorations hanging from the elaborately-styled roof.

It was tasteful, simple and almost ascetic in comparison to the Victorian parodies of Ancient Greece that stood around it and it was an almost painful reminder of everything I'd lost with her absence.

Taking a deep breath to still myself, I reached my hand up robotically and rapped on the door with three measured knocks.

When she opened the door, the familiarity turned my stomach into a tight Klein bottle of nerves. Her hair was still done up in that tight braid of red held together by resistors woven into the braid in some elegant, indecipherable pattern, and her arms were still stained with grease and burn marks from a long day of soldering and welding in her inherited laboratory.

Were it not for the assemblage of gears and mechanisms attached to her back and the newly-carved scars under my eyes and on my arms, we would've been the picture-perfect copy of the couple who'd snuck kisses and forbidden literature to one another in that same laboratory a decade or so ago.

"Afternoon, Amitha."

"Good afternoon, Inquisitor Xiang," she replied evenly. That made it five years since she'd called me "Connie". "Just wanted to drop by and swap pleasantries, or is there something not to your satisfaction here?"

I sighed. "…Ms. Vikram. You're not in trouble, I'd just like to have you on as a consultant." The words felt like I was speaking them through a thick gag of formality shoving itself down my mouth.

With a brief effort of will, Amitha disengaged whatever was plugged into her back and took the opportunity to come a couple steps closer to me. "And why's it you can't come to someone else for that consultancy, Inquisitor?"

"It's a cross-sect case." Noticing her sharp intake of breath, I cut in quickly. "Look, Amitha, gimme the benefit of the doubt here — I'm not so stupid as to go after you cause you're the first convert that came to mind. Problem is there's a lady on the other side of the Way to Alagadda with Legate Trunnion's words drilled into her head via mass driver, and if there's a person who'd know where you could get something like that done, it'd be you."

Amitha relaxed and quirked her lip. "Right. So I'm not guilty, I just know enough to be."

"Hey, if you think anyone's gonna convict on that alone, you'd be a) right and b) the second person to get dragged to the firing line after me."

"So you're doing this… what, out of some misguided belief you're protecting me?"

"I like to think I'm doing both me and Ms. Allison Chao over there a service by getting someone who actually knows their shit on the case, but if you want you can think I'm saving both our asses from one count of cross-universal hate crime, sure."

She flinched at the name I'd just dropped. The tactic might've been effective for pulling sympathy from civilians when speechifying but I hadn't expected it to be quite that effective. "Allison… black hair, sleeveless top, tattoo right there?" She pointed at a spot on her shoulder.

"Eye for details, huh. You'd make a decent cop."

"Xiang, shut up." Amitha began to turn and pace towards the back of her workshop. I didn't have a choice but to follow her in. "Are you absolutely sure that's the woman you saw?"

"I can literally project the photos I took onto the wall, if it's so important to you. Tell me why."

And as the faint sound of sirens in the distance began to make itself known to me, Amitha's face turned into a mask of confusion. "Because she's been waiting right here the entire time."


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