In Lulu Land
The walls are soft and dark
In Lulu Land
Your secret heart
Is in command
In Lulu Land
-Paul McKinney for Camper Van Beethoven, "Lulu Land"
Leaving the birdlike boy in the glam-littered Ladbroke backalley, they cracked the door to the catacombs and dangled on a white thread in the dark.
"Flashlight," Sergeant said. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a torch. The flame sputtered in the damp air.
As the stair took them deeper, the walls paled with pictographs, carvings from the red lacquered surface into the white chalky stone. Soon the carvings grew so dense that they merged to become the background of raised red arrows and birds, spirals and raindrops, eyes and suns, hearts and skulls.
The stairs leveled in a T. Sergeant looked both ways.
"I don't think it matters," Risa said.
"It doesn't." Trixie's voice was somewhere off to the side. "But you must pretend that it does. Or vice versa, I forget."
Sergeant said, "But you must know where the time engine is."
"As long as we don't know," Risa said, "it could be anywhere."
"But up there, it can only be in one place."
"As long as they have a story of how it got taken, and we have a story of how we got it, the stories don't have to match, unless we compare notes. Wait, Trixie, wouldn't your perspective tip the paradox? Trixie?"
She was gone.
Down one passage, Denova had produced a blue glowstick that upped the contrast of the pictographs, now sparkly black over sandy white. "Hey, these are getting good."
"Wait," Sergeant said, "we have to decide which way to go."
"You dolt!" Risa slapped his head and his torch fizzled.
The pictograph landscape now covered both walls and the ceiling. Its archetypal base symbols had divided and evolved into beasts and hunters, chariots and triremes, castles and cities, airships and starchains, rising and falling as the two colors traded roles as background and text, until they were both text, each telling their stories precisely in the spaces left by the other. Then they further divided into three woven threads: wall, ceiling, wall.
"Captain," Risa said, "I mean Sergeant. This triptych is beyond default cog. I need you to mod Denova's boozefab for a headcrack psych."
Denova took a last chug and passed the bottle. "I'm in."
The mechanic took the fab in one hand and the hack in the other, the slate and the chisel, the bottle and the opener; there in the dim passage, hunched over his toolkit, he drew dreamsyrup from the coalbin.
"One part per thousand," he said, "diffused in Minoan spiced rum."
Denova sniffed the baroque volatiles. "That's Chthon spiced rum."
"But that's level four."
"I'm telling you." She sipped. "I hope your other drug didn't also get messed up."
She had barely handed over the bottle when she saw a story so beautiful that she chased it away down the catacombs, losing touch with the floor, her body, her memories.
She became the story, and it got bigger, and bigger, and somewhere in a far corner, a brassy commoner from frontier Na-il rode her discordant style all the way to a rollercoaster plunge down a monster faestorm.
She woke in the Ladbroke sixline. The view outside was like a blurry carousel on a humid night. She was on the couch, and the Captain and Torisa were sprawled sleeping on floor pillows by the half-unboxed sphere-tiller for their new antique engine.
"You've only been away for a trifle. The others should return soon."
"Was that a dream?"
"It would seem to have been."
Now Torisa stirred and the Captain sat upright. "What a dream! I was a driver on Ladbroke 4-2. Risa, you were there. Wait, that was another dream."
She pulled out her snotty handkerchief and waved it at him like the veil of a princess.
"So it really happened?"
"Honey, we are so far from where that question even makes sense."
"But the engine," he said. "Did we get it?"
"It's a long story. You go first."
I was a young busracer. In Ladbroke cities there are two kinds of buses, slack and boom. Slackbuses are Blipmax, and boombuses have no limit, but only the best boomdrivers get to carry passengers. We settled it in the quieter streets, with races.
I was right at the edge of qualifying. I needed just a few seconds, so I took a shortcut down an alley that I knew had a blind exit. I had to risk it. And there, in the perfect spot to get walloped, was this tinny little car with four passengers. I smacked it like a hockey puck. I'm thinking, they're all dead, and so poor they might be permadead, that's a deep cell on the Lonely Planet.
Now, Ladbroke subscribes to Pirate Law, in which all criminals get a sporting chance. So I took off. I stayed in the underground, consorting with the dodgiest scum of the Ladbroke chain. I met this girl... but that's another story.
Under Pirate Law, time spent as a fugitive is credited back to you. But I couldn't take it. After two weeks I turned myself in.
And they kept saying, there was no accident.
"I was there, I saw it. It was me. I need to confess." The Captain bowed his head to hide his quiet sobs. "They kept saying, nothing happened. But it did. It was my crime. Stop protecting me!"
He gathered his breath. "They gave me a silver bullet anti-psych, and I woke up here."
Torisa reached over and took his hand. We were dancing, she said, down in the tunnel. Me looking at the ceiling, and you and Denova standing back, looking across each other at the walls. One of us would slow down or speed up in our readings, and the others would move out of the way, but in that motion, speeding or slowing their own reading.
So our stories were linked. I would stop to read of a princess fleeing a wedding, and you would skip the whole history of the Suskiksus chain to get around me. Denova, feeling you to her side, would slow so you could pass, and get caught in a wistful tale of two orphans, one blind and one lame, in an old stone city.
In the story that took me, I was a Ladbroke cardshark. The game was Minoan Caravan. Players hold cards in their tents and throw them to the arena to capture more cards. Taken cards go on top, and played cards come off the bottom, but you can't change the order and you can't look at them.
So it becomes a game of memory. A good player knows every card in every stack, and the order. Then the choice is how many cards to throw in combat, not knowing the throws of your enemies.
Then it becomes a game of nerve. Combat is triple circle four, like rock-skin-knife, but in this case, grain smothers moth, moth eats rope, rope binds slave, slave reaps grain. In the second circle, water eats iron, iron breaks stone, stone smothers fire, fire dries water. In the third circle, sun stokes spice, spice stokes dream, dream stokes joker, and in the presence of all four, the first two circles are reversed for that throw, and all tents are shuffled.
Then it becomes a game of luck, and that was where I cheated. I wasn't just lucky — I could fine-tune, deal by deal, the luck of every player. When I got better, I could choose exactly which cards were thrown, as long as each card lay in the shadow of a shuffle.
Winning every game would be easy, but then they would know. So I crafted a persona, a ditzy chav amateur who couldn't even remember her own cards, and I entered the big tournament.
First I won through luck. I was a curiosity. But my luck had to run out, so I pretended to learn skills that I already had: memory, tactics, boldness, a playing style that took interesting risks. I became a sensation.
Meanwhile, watching another bracket, I found the worst arsebowler in the whole tournament, and I made it look like he was impossibly lucky. Unwittingly, he played the villain. I met him in the semifinal, and I threw down a curbstomp. The crowd roared for me as they dragged him away.
In the championship I faced the sensible favorite, and of course I lost. Otherwise someone would do a deep stat, and figure out that even a level four luck savant was more likely than those shuffles.
But from that moment I was famous. Top-drawer cardsharks queued to face the Caravan Queen. I would pick nobodies with stories, lowly ragamuffins and pompous barristers, defiant spinsters and dashing rakes, streetsweepers and spacepilots. Every game was a reckoning of the stories of its players. I took from the rich and gave to the poor. I brought people together and tore them apart. I exposed crude lies and replaced them with elegant distortions.
And at the verge, I paused. Nothing stood in my way. The game guild had already fallen to the new wave: bands of players who were transparently theatrical, but still had to nav their stories to the flow of the cards.
Now, the Sifrexans, from their cogfab fountainhead, offer a service to chains and planets called Mulewatch. About one individual in a billion has the talent and focus to zonk the progs of all but the Fives. Mulewatch uses an economical level four prog simulator to identify charismatic interlopers to the sensible prognostications of the cognoscenti. 'We are not responsible for what you do with this information.'
But Mulewatch violates Pirate Law. Ladbroke can't use it. I could rule the planet, maybe the whole fourline. Nobody could stop me except a luck or prog level five, and they would be on my side anyway.
There, on the trigger of my epic destiny, I slacked. I shuffled off the burden of history, and fearing it would chase me, I disappeared into the underground. There I met a Devonian vagabond named Malachi Ripp, and we burned brightly through the saloons and digs of the dead chains, scavenging priceless artifacts and arcane lore.
We found one time engine so antediluvian that I donated it to the Parliamentary Museum and they named a wing after me.
"That's the one you were targeting in your Ladbroke caper." She rose and leaned back on the half-unpacked handflight. "But we found a better one, and I stashed it as an accessory to an obscure navwheel."
She tore open the crate, and there, circling the base of the melon-like globe, was a ring for a dragon's knuckle, a golden bobeche densely sculptured with elfin riot and eldritch debauchery.
The Captain said, "How did you know, to put it on this wheel?"
"Honey, I remembered everything. Here." From the subwheel bin she drew a level four Ladbroke fabhack and a Minoan rumbottle foodfab, and passed them to their dreamworld crafters.
"Also, one night in the underground, I met a young boombus racer on the run from a hit."
In the Captain's hand, the driver sprung every attachment. "That was you." He met her eyes. "But you were so far out of my class."
She leaned and whispered in his ear. "You were my Captain."
Red and blue police lights flashed in the dome.
With a dry black thump, Nimrod fell dead in their midst.