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Authors: Peng Shepherd

The Book of M (31 page)

BOOK: The Book of M
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It was the best dream, Ory. So warm and safe and peaceful. So real I could feel it. We were all back in the RV again, some snuggled on the soft, worn couch, some stretched out lengthwise along the floor from back to front. Ursula was in the driver's seat, like she always is, one hand on the wheel and one on the gearshift, and I was reclining in the passenger seat, nestled into the cushions. Outside, a lone road stretched beneath the stars, a gentle curve across the dark, endless plains, and our tires rolled smoothly for once, so smoothly you could barely tell we were moving at all.

“Max,” Ursula said softly to me from behind the wheel as I stirred. The night sky rolled by through the windshield. “I need you to do something for me.”

“Sure,” I smiled drowsily.

“I need you to hold on to the back of your seat as tightly as you can so you don't crack open your skull on the dashboard.”

I blinked. “What?”

“Right now, Max,” Ursula said. “
Right now!

My hands clawed at my headrest as the nose of the RV slammed through the heavy doors of the abandoned church in a peeling scream of splitting wood and crumbling bricks. The whole wall shattered, but it didn't matter—we burst through as it collapsed behind. We dropped over a ramp, maybe a short stack of stairs, and then suddenly the world opened back up. Ory! We were actually outside now, not just in my dream—speeding beneath the dark, starlit sky, crashing frantically through a maze of white tents and tiny, twinkling torches as Ursula tried her best not to hit anyone or anything, but refusing to slow down, no matter what.

“What's happening?” I yelled, but even as I did, I knew. I turned and stared openmouthed at her. She had twisted Transcendence's power against them by giving them exactly what they wanted. She had
forgotten
. Forgotten that we'd been captive for days, that we weren't still free, in our RV, riding for New Orleans, and who knows what else. She hadn't tried to break the unbreakable bars of the cage, because the woman in white was right: The Great One had remembered that the bars could never be
broken
. But she hadn't remembered anything about whether or not they could be
changed.
Ursula had transformed the cage into our RV, with us still inside.

“Everyone to the windows!” she cried as she swung the wheel around another tent, past more torches where a mass gathering was being held before some kind of giant altar. The followers all turned in slow motion, rows and rows of tiny ghosts, their veils floating in
the breeze. “I don't know who these people are, but they don't look friendly! Be ready to fight!”


Ilaahayow!
” Intisaar cursed as she stared out the front from between us. “There are hundreds of them!” The RV pitched through a tent as white robed figures dove out of the way, barefoot.

“Windows!” Ursula ordered her. Behind us, we could hear the roar of engines start up to begin their chase. The camp stretched out before us like a spider web, clustered and winding, some tents occupied and glowing softly with candlelight, others dark and lonely as their inhabitants milled outside. Pedestrians who had seen us racing toward them from afar had armed themselves with rocks, sticks, knives. They dashed at the sides of our RV now as it passed, trying to do some damage without being dragged underneath. “Keep them away from the wheels!”

If we could just get outside of their lines and find a road, we might make it,
I thought. We might outrun their scouts, who would have to return to their camp eventually, wouldn't they? There was no limit to how far we would go.

Ursula jerked the gearshift, and we careened past something tall and boxy, sides smashed and corroding in the heat of a trash fire. Half a shipping container, I thought at first, but then I saw the molten, dripping tires, and the remnants of what had once been a painted mural across one of the surfaces. Only the sunset hadn't yet dehydrated and flaked into ash in the blistering heat of the flames.
That's our RV.
I watched it whisk by, too stunned to move at first.
The real one. Not our reimagined one.
I stuck my head out the window to peer down the side of our vehicle as it raced jaggedly away. Only blank tan siding.

Ursula's plan had been a success, but there was one fatal flaw—she had been the owner of the RV, or the one who found it, but not the one who painted our map. Her reimagining wasn't complete.

“The painting!” I cried. “We won't make it without the painting!”

Ursula's expression faltered for an instant as she realized I had named a thing that should have been there but couldn't remember why it wasn't. There were too many white-masked disciples streaming after us for her to consider it for more than a few seconds, though, or we'd die. “Don't worry about that now!” she shouted from the front seat. “Just keep them away from us!”

I clambered to the other side, to help Dhuuxo and Intisaar hold off our pursuers. There was a knife in my hand, a knife with a dark green handle that hadn't been there before, I realized with dim horror, but there was nothing left to do now but thrust it out the window, slash, and scream. Zachary was on the floor by our feet, his hands scrambling madly to pluck shapes out of thin air and then grasp them as solid things. He had heard me. He was trying to remember his brushes, so he could paint for us again. The soft stains on his fingers were darkening as they spread, creeping until the skin of his arms had turned into an inky swirl almost up to his elbows.

“Don't do this!” a familiar voice cried. The woman in white was there, shouting at us from the back of one of the strafing motorcycles. She didn't have a weapon, but her driver did. “There is nothing for you there! We can give you everything—power, respect, love, an army—”

Zachary lurched to the opposite windows, between Victor and Wes, covered to the chest in color now as if he'd been tarred. I didn't even know in what direction we were driving—or if Ursula did either.
Please let him remember what the painting looks like,
I pleaded.
Just one more time.
But the RV was moving too fast, and there were too many of them chasing us. I could feel it—he was running out of time somehow. There was no way for him to paint anything by reaching out the window as we sped, but if we could escape, by the time we were safe enough to stop, he wouldn't remember what the mural looked like.

“Ursula!” I yelled, but she yelled at the same moment as well, ducking as a thrown rock crashed against her window, fracturing the glass.

“No fear,” Zachary said to me in a voice that was somehow not strained at all, despite the chaos. “No fear. I paint.”

I looked at him, and he nodded calmly. It was hard to tell—there was just so much dark, gleaming varnish on him now, covering almost every inch of his body—but I thought I saw his navy-blue-stained lips smile at me.
I paint,
he said again, without moving them at all. I believed him, Ory.

“Left side!” Intisaar cried as an ATV screeched wildly past us, dangerously close to the front cabin. I looked away from Zachary and thrust my arm through the window to slice at anything within reach.

“No more cages!” the woman in white continued desperately, just behind us. Her motorcycle swerved around a pothole at deadly speed.

“Someone kill her, whoever she is,” Ursula said. The RV shifted gears into a charging sprint.

“We were wrong! No more cages! Anything you want! We—” Her cries turned into a surprised choke as the soldier steering for them suddenly jerked like a doll. I thought I heard a storm calling from somewhere nearby. The man's head dropped back, then slowly tilted to the side at an angle that made it clear he was no longer driving the motorcycle—no one with their head at such an angle could drive a motorcycle.

“Got them!” Dhuuxo snarled triumphantly. A pistol was smoking in her grip, but then she didn't have it any longer as quickly as she had gotten it. She stared in surprise at her empty hands.

The motorcycle stayed balanced beside us for just a moment. Straight—then listing, listing, slowly toward the road's shoulder—and then it disappeared in an explosion of sand, white flags of fabric, fire. “Angela!” someone screamed, a long, horrible howl. “Angela, no!”

The word broke a kind of spell over me. She'd had no face, but now she had a name. Angela. Angela. I could imagine her as more than just someone who locked other humans into cages until they broke. As something other than a piece of Transcendence. Angela who worked in banking, Angela who went for five-mile runs around
her neighborhood, when it had still existed, Angela whose husband died in the first month. Who had misinterpreted shadowlessness as some kind of religion—who had somehow fooled herself into believing that because the Forgetting was uncontrollable, inevitable, that also made it right. Angela—just another woman who didn't understand anything that had happened either. None of us did.

“Do
not
let them get away, no matter what!” another voice cried at last from somewhere near the taillights. The rest of Transcendence rallied around it, shouting. “They're coming back with us—dead or alive!”

“More speed, Ursula!” I shouted to her. The RV groaned frightfully, somehow lurching forward even faster. Another thing forgotten. “Or they're going to kill us!”

“Just keep fighting!” she called back. The motorcycles edged ever closer. Behind, gun muzzles gleamed from the off-road jeeps. There were far, far too many of them. If they managed to stop our vehicle, we'd never survive.

“Faster!” I screamed again as a white hand swiped for our rearview mirror. The RV roared.

Ursula drove so far and so fast to lose the horde, we didn't realize until we finally, finally stopped that Zachary was gone.

Orlando Zhang

THERE WAS SO MUCH BLOOD, AND ORY COULDN'T STOP IT. HE
kept his hand pressed against Imanuel's neck, but the wound was too ragged, too big. Red was oozing out between his fingers, so hot it made him shudder. Bile curdled in the back of his throat.

“To the second floor,” Malik was saying as he helped Ory carry Imanuel's limp frame into the lobby of the Iowa.

“No,” Imanuel coughed, his voice full of liquid. “Lay me here.”

“We need to get you behind secure doors,” Ahmadi said from behind them.

“Doesn't matter,” Imanuel replied. “Won't survive.”

“Imanuel,” Ory argued.

“I know” was his response. He could say only so many words in one breath now.
I'm a doctor
was what it meant.
I can tell.

They tried to keep carrying him, but Imanuel's words had power in them. They couldn't unbelieve. Once he'd said it, things slowed—he was too heavy, the stairs too slick, their legs too exhausted. They edged forward but didn't make it very far. They hadn't meant to set him down, but then Imanuel was on the marble floor, propped in Ory's lap. Ory ran his hand over his friend's brow, to stop the blood from trickling into his eyes. He could feel Imanuel's neck strain against his hand every time he breathed. “Please don't go,” he whispered. “I just found you.”

“I'm sorry,” Imanuel managed. His eyes were wide with fear. “I'm sorry.”

“Stop trying to talk,” Ory said.

“About Paul,” Imanuel continued, ignoring the order. His voice was soft enough that Malik and Ahmadi couldn't hear. He tried to swallow and choked. “Sorry about Paul. Should have told you.”

“Imanuel, stop.”

“I tried. To kill him,” he stammered. “Almost. But I couldn't.” He gasped at the pain.

“I couldn't have done it either, if it had been Max,” Ory replied softly. “You made it further than I ever could.”

Imanuel's eyes shone with tears. “I let him go. I made. All this. I made. Him.”

“No, you didn't,” Ory said. He pressed his forehead against Imanuel's. He tried not to think of how it would have gone with Max. If they too had reached a point where she had forgotten too much to remember that Ory was trying to keep her safe, not imprison her—or if, unthinkably, she had begged him in her last lucid moments to end her misery, but then forgotten by the time Ory had worked up the courage to do it. The last thing she would know was fear. A corrupting, animal terror, pointed at the wrong person. Ory could see now how Paul had become what he had become: the two of them, Paul and Imanuel, standing outside in the darkness the night Imanuel knew he couldn't wait any longer, or risk the lives of the rest of the Iowa. Imanuel gently trying to take Paul's book of poetry away from him before he ended the yawning darkness of his amnesia. Trying to give love and accidentally causing exactly the opposite—which became the only thing Paul had left.

A huge bang shattered the stillness. The Reds chasing them had reached the front steps of the Iowa.

“Ory,” Imanuel said, his voice thick, as though coming from underwater, “Red King won. Too many. Everything on fire.” Blood was bubbling in the corner of his mouth. “Books are all we have left. Take them to New Orleans. Save the books.”

“The door is breaking,” Malik said behind them. “The iron bar is still locked, but if they make a hole in the wood, they can hit us through it.”

They stared at each other.
I can't leave without her,
Ory wanted to say.

“Ory,” Imanuel begged. Ory could see what he meant in his expression.
Max is gone
. “Save the books. Go to New Orleans.”
She was never here.

“Door is breached!” Malik warned. A loud boom shook the marble lobby. The glow of firelight danced in the corners. “We need to make a final stand or run.”

“Ory—”
Be happy that you never found her. Be happy you never saw. Be happy your memory of her can't be tarnished by whatever she became before her end.

Ory leaned down to Imanuel and put his forehead against his again. “I'll go,” he said. “I'll go.”

Imanuel grew heavier in his arms. “I'm sorry,” he said again, breathless. “I'm sorry. You have to. Remember all of us now.” His eyes brimmed with tears. “No one to help.”

“It's okay,” Ory wiped his face again for him.
Max. Paul. Imanuel.
“It's okay.”

Imanuel took one more gasp, eyes unfocusing. Then the light went out behind them.

Ory held him for a while longer.

“We have to go now,” Malik finally said. He touched Imanuel gently on the shoulder. Behind him, Ory heard Ahmadi hiccup, to stop a sob.

“Just one more second,” Ory said.
Max. Paul. Imanuel.
He tried to see every line of his face. Every dark, quiet edge of his shadow, a perfect outline of him, still there flat and cold against the floor. He looked until it began to blur.
Imanuel
. “I have to remember.”

THEY RAN.

“We're not going to make it,” Ory panted. It felt like the Reds were going to crash into the hallway at any minute, right behind them.

“We will.” Malik stumbled, recovered. “All the books are packed—just have to climb in!” Their torches lurched with every step down the corridor, throwing light over the stone walls. “You have Paul's book?”

Ory squeezed the cover until his fingers ached. “I have it,” he said as they sprinted. It felt sickeningly warm, but the plastic Imanuel had wrapped it in as he took it had kept it safe from all his blood. Ory clutched it harder.

“Turn!” Malik cried as they all almost smashed into a wall. Ahmadi skidded behind them to avoid colliding. Ory could hear that she was still crying as they ran. It made it hurt more, to know that she was as torn apart as he was. That she had loved Imanuel and Paul as much as he had. He wanted to turn around and just hold her and cry with her until the Reds killed them. But he couldn't. He'd made a promise. He had to survive long enough to get their books to New Orleans. They careened down a set of marble stairs, into the garage level.

“Code Red!” Ory shouted.

A shrill whinny answered. Around the room, soldiers jumped up, scrambling for the order. “Vienna?” Malik shouted frantically in the chaos, and Vienna answered from across the room. Locks clicked, hinges squealed. The horses came out of their parking spaces already dressed in full regalia, saddles on and harnesses slung across their great shoulders. One soldier hooked one horse to each yoke, and his partner then climbed onto the second one to ride beside each carriage.

“Carriage one, ready!”

“Carriage two, ready!” Yells came down the line.

A dull boom echoed far overhead, then muffled cries. “They're in the lobby,” Ahmadi cried. “Open the garage doors!”

“I'll take rear, you take front with—the General,” Malik said to her. Ahmadi raised her bow and leapt into Watson's saddle.


General,
” Ory protested deliriously.

“Plenty of time to argue about it later,” Ahmadi cut him off. Her eyes were still puffy, but murderous in their focus now. “First we get out of here alive and with all the books.”

“Up here!” the soldier holding the reins of the nearest carriage said frantically.

The horse at the end of the carriage's yoke whinnied as Ory threw
himself into the seat beside the young man, an ear-splitting call. “Get us out of here, Holmes,” Ory said, recognizing the animal's sound.

An explosion on the floor above threatened to shatter the ceiling and crush them all to death. The horses lurched, shaking the carriages.

“We have to go!” Malik bellowed from the back of the line, his voice so deafening he could have been shouting right beside Ory. “Get those doors open
now
!” A horrible cracking sound shook the walls, and then the voices of a hundred screaming Reds rushed at them.

“They're in!” Ahmadi cried. Blinding gray light pierced the warm glow of the torches as the garage doors finally rolled open. Ory felt Holmes surge desperately beneath him at the sight, her instinct to claw out of the gloom and into the light taking over. The carriage jolted to life like a freight train, rolling faster and faster toward the blinding, freeing glow.

“Go now! Go now! Go now!” Malik shouted as each carriage took off. Ory lost sight of Ahmadi and yelled for her, over and over. His soldier lashed Holmes's straining back, the Reds roared; behind, Malik's shotgun fired, thunder boomed. Ory held on to Paul's book for dear life. “
GO NOW!

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