Part I: The Word and The Cool Kids | Part II | Part III
Adrian Baudin had a recurring dream. He'd dream that he was lying awake on his cot, in the basement beneath the house in which he'd spent two months, ever since the day of the Greenwich Exhibition.
The basement, normally filled with the sound of chatter (and drilling, Adrian was convinced; power tools at least), was instead mute, and the wooden floorboards of the house that sat anomalously silent above Adrian's head were streaming with flames.
Adrian always found himself unable to move from the cot, unable to take his eyes off the ceiling as it glowed with embers. Eventually, the roof would fall, and the flames would engulf his body. Every part of him that was recognizable would be burned away, and beneath them would be a new human, reborn and ready to emerge in a world that did not remember his face.
And it was always at this time that Adrian awoke.
Today, he woke up in his cot, as usual. Usual, but not always—sometimes, he'd wake up on a porcelain floor in the bathroom, or perhaps on dead grass outside. His hosts told him this was a normal consequence of the field that permeated the house. He tried to no avail to think nothing of it. Elsewhere in the basement, other men rose from their cots, which were set up in haphazard rows on the concrete floors. Without any fanfare, the day had begun.
Across an aisle, he spotted a familiar face hunched over his knees on the edge of a cot, staring between his legs, willing them to cooperate.
Adrian walked over. "Geoff."
"Adrian," Geoffrey mumbled through a grayed mustache. "Let's go for a walk."
There wasn't much space for walking outside. The house looked run down, white paint worn by endless raindrops into a streaky mess. There seemed to be all too much wood propping the place up, and all too many worm-ridden holes in every plank.
The exterior of the house was enveloped by only another confinement. A dome of eggshell blue came down on all sides, leaving a scarce few meters' radius of unkempt lawn. If one stared into the barrier, it might seem like fog that had been pressed against some transparent wall, embossed with the shape of hexagons in a grid. If one stared for longer, the eyes would lose focus, trying to grasp the other side of a wall that wasn't there.
Once, Adrian had walked through this barrier. When he returned, he found one of them waiting to let him back in. From the outside, the house just looked like an empty field. When he entered again, the wall became solid, unyielding. He had not left since.
And so it was often that the misplaced artist and his friend would wait outside. They would talk about what they had been doing. What to do next.
Geoff wasn't happy in the old house. The hosts made him uneasy. That they might consider themselves artists, and call what they do art. He scarcely thought art should put you on the radar of the Foundation. Or the Coalition.
Adrian was less sure. He didn't think a single one of the Cool Kids really thought they were artists. He saw it in their eyes, reflected in every drop of water they drank: they were soldiers. The moniker was purely practical, of course. They knew it would draw in the people they wanted. They knew it tied them to ideas they liked. "Hey," they might say. "We fought back then when the Word was something worth fighting for. We can still fight. Fight with us."
But, it was all conjecture. Sometimes Adrian wondered if conjecture was all he had left anymore. Is it worth asking a question if no-one thinks to answer? Is it worth painting if your canvas ends up in a research vault somewhere?
Adrian related this, in so many words, to Geoff, who was quick to correct him. They had each other. That would have to be enough.
Sometimes Adrian stared at a canvas, paintbrush in hand.
He had borrowed them from the communal supply stash. Most of the paint in the building was used for reinforcing sigils, or protective circles. But they had some surplus from which Adrian could leech. And he tried to paint when he could. Today, he'd managed to sneak some space in the vacant dining room.
He thought about what could be projected onto the canvas. Who made his suffering? Who kept him from leaving this place?
Was it the Cool Kids? The Coalition? Was it the government? Or the Foundation?
His brush moved, and he focused as he'd done before, in that apartment. When the world clicked, and it all made sense. He did with his brush what he once did with his mind, what he now does with his eyes. Sorting the threads in his mind into neat boxes, tracing the lines to their origin. Following the circle.
He was interrupted by one of the youngest of his hosts. Adrian paid the required attention to him, turning his head away from the smattering of blue pigments to focus on the messy-haired man to his side.
He had a toothy glare. "We know what you're feeling."
Adrian avoided his gaze. "What is it I feel?"
"You're wondering if you could get out. You know what it's like to be pushed down. You scream, but nobody hears. You paint, but nobody looks."
Adrian nodded. "Like you?"
"Sometimes." The boy shrugged, taking an unwanted seat. "Sometimes it feels like everyone's listening. Sometimes it's like there's someone looking over our shoulder."
"Seems comforting. You should take that to church." Adrian stared at the table. It didn't budge.
"Not really. They don't understand us. Don't get it. We've tried outreach, but it's hard." The boy shifted in his seat. Adrian didn't look.
"Is that what Greenwich was? Outreach? You did reach out to some people. People coming to arrest us." Adrian twirled a thin paintbrush between his fingers.
The boy exhaled. Sounded like he was shaking his head. "No, no. Not for them. They can knock all they want, but they won't get in. It's the person who can get in… she's who we really want."
"Maybe if you looked us in the eyes, you could find out."
Adrian stared at the table, adamant. The boy left, eventually, without another word.
Adrian tried to resume, but the paint just wouldn't work. He shelved the canvas for another time.
On another day, outside the house.
"Did I ever tell you about my… when I was young?" Geoff was eating an apple, and perched on a patch of grass, one somewhat less craggy than the rest of the yard.
"I don't think so." Adrian was staring forwards, into the foggy barrier. "You usually ask the questions."
"Well, before I, uh… before I left, my parents had a farm. Big, wide, open. Lots of trees. Suppose it was an orchard, actually. There were lots of apples." He took another bite.
Adrian turned, and peered past the fruit obscuring his face. "You don't look much like a farmer, Geoff. More of a… Hemingway type." He nodded to himself, satisfied with the comparison.
If Geoffrey considered this, he didn't pause. "I like to think of it as, I was growing bowls of fruit twenty years before you started painting them."
"You grew bowls?"
"Ech, quiet. But, what I've been wondering, is: how long are we going to sit here, in this house… before they start trying to grow things on the lawn?"
Adrian tilted his head. "I don't think they need to grow food. There's a van. Some kind of exploit pocket on it, and they can drive undetected. Get groceries."
"If they're so good at hiding, I'm surprised we have to hide in the first place. Why weren't they so subtle back in… in Greenwich?"
"Well," Adrian turned his head. Several of his hosts were sitting close to the barrier, cross-legged in a semicircle, eyes closed. "They thought they had to be seen. Had to do it in public."
"I'm still trying to… scrub the whole bloody thing from my public eyes. I swear, I remember six different ways it happened and none of them make sense. I saw you die, at least… at least once." Geoffrey winced, and shook his head, but the memories stayed firmly inside it.
"It's alright. I don't think it… I don't think any of it went like they wanted it to." The artist pressed his friend's shoulder gently. "Can I ask a question?"
"Why'd you run away? From the farm."
"My thought was, growing food for other people to eat isn't a real way to live."
"Mmm. Fair sight better than this, though."
They were silent. Adrian thought about mentioning something strange he'd noticed about the van. Sometimes he saw it out in the driveway, painted in its purple coat, a mural on the left side with a bird of prey, skull clutched in one claw and olive wreath in the other (who painted that, Adrian wondered. Surely not one of his hosts). Sometimes the van wasn't there, out on a supply trip. But, on other days, the van was nowhere to be found, but not a single person was missing from the house. As if it had driven away on its own.
He decided not to mention it.
Sometimes, Adrian's sight didn't want to cooperate with him. Ever since that project, the one the Foundation kept locked up…
Sometimes everything just swirled together, lost in a sea of everything that came before. People got lost in the clouds of what shaped them, objects became obscured by the minds of their architects.
Everything just blended together, like an oil painting in the rain. And Adrian could lose himself in the flood.
Adrian didn't talk to his hosts very often. Most of the time, if you didn't talk to them, they'd ignore you just the same, and buzz about, performing rituals and spells and making sigils with acrylic paint on the floor and ceiling (and drilling away with power tools. Adrian knew it. He saw the hole in their faces).
Whenever he saw them, he squinted instinctively. A single man seemed to be every man at once, not indistinguishable, but all of them together. The whole was not more than the sum of its parts; the whole was its parts.
One of them was different. Today, this man approached him. Pulled him aside. And Adrian looked up at his angular face, thin, like skin stretched over bones.
"Look at me," the hawkish man said. "Tell me what you see."
When Adrian looked at him, he looked into his eyes.
The irises were grey, like so many pools of silt. Like the eye of a storm over a city. Not a city. Every city.
For a moment the angles of the man's face became right, and Adrian saw cars streaming through a grid. The grid grew tight, like a coarse strainer.
The bad blood dripped to the floor, and as the rivers ran they became stone. The scars ran deep. Years, centuries. They went back forever. And stretched on into the horizon, until they connected back again, and made a circle around the world.
The itch must be scratched. The cursed must be freed. Hate begets hate. Can't you see that it's endless? They won't let you go.
No, no, Adrian thought. There must be an end to it all. There has to be. It cannot go on like this forever.
Right you are!
He snapped out of it, his eyes released from the hawk-man's gripping gaze.
Adrian squinted at the hawk-man. The hawk-man stared back, wrinkles around his eyes not matching the rest of his face. There was an uncomfortable stillness.
Adrian broke the silence. "I saw you."
"Yeah? Yeah? What did you see?"
"I don't think it'll… look, I don't really know what you're going for with all this. I'm just here because… the Coalition is out there."
The man nodded as if he was being sympathetic, but Adrian saw that he was not. "You should see something. Follow."
The hawk-man strode through the basement. Adrian followed, struggling to keep up with his uncomfortably rapid pace. He came to a concrete wall, and leaned against it. Adrian stopped behind him. He knocked on the wall, with both gnarled hands, rhythmically.
"Uhm. Is that an… exploit?" Adrian couldn't parse him.
He didn't turn around. "You know where this house came from? We built it. All of us. With our own two hands. And the energy coming through is just… oh, it's just enormous."
"Right?" Adrian tilted his head.
"Right. And it all flows through here, and… it's not without consequences, but we're safe." He kept knocking. The wall started to change, a craggy outline beginning to form, just wider than Adrian was tall.
At last, the portion of wall was gone. Phased out of existence. And behind was a tunnel through concrete and dirt.
"Get in here." Hawk-man stepped inside, walking into the darkness. Adrian followed, minding his step as the ground became uneven.
They continued through for ten meters or so. The walls were rough, and the ground around them felt… dense.
At the end of the tunnel was a large, sloped shape, concealed by dirt. The man stood next to it, brushing away the silt and sediment. "Tell me what you saw."
Adrian shifted his weight on the uncertain ground. "I… I don't think this goes well for you. All of this. All of you. Greenwich, the Foundation… it's all going to happen over again. You won't like where this leads."
He nodded. This nod felt authentic; Adrian could almost grasp it in his hand. "Take a look at this."
Adrian peered at the shape, dirt brushed off, so he could just make out a glint of metal… and the shape of a painted beak. It was the van.
"We need you, Adrian. We just need to make you something good, something real good."
The artist sighed. "Okay, I… okay."
The hawkish man nodded again, satisfied. His arms hung limply at his sides as he stared into the end of the tunnel, where the automobile was embedded in the dirt.
Adrian turned around, and started to walk out. He didn't look back, but he felt the draft emerging from the van whispering along his shoulders.
What would happen, if they were right, and there was no end at all?
What happened at Greenwich?
No, no. It can't be true. Can't it?
Right you are!
And Adrian retreated to sleep.
A few kilometers away, in another van, this one white, a man in overalls sat with a woman in pants. The man could not see the house's protective bubble, not without special equipment. But she could.
He was sipping water. "And you're sure about this? If I tell the higher ups what you told me, and the anartists get out under our noses… there'll be hell to pay. For us both."
She sat up in the padded seat. Her legs were crossed. A polite formality. Her voice felt strong, like it echoed against itself. Like it had been hollowed out and filled with steel. "We are positive. And with only a few days preparation, the egg can be cracked. And the hive will burn."
He took another drink. This seemed reasonable to him. "You know, if this works out… the Coalition always needs people like you. Ma'am."
She smiled. The ripples in the water became still. "Thank you. But this is all we need."
And she really meant it.
Part I: The Word and The Cool Kids | Part II | Part III