Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

North Over Empty Space

Sigmund came back to himself after a gray interval of unknown time, hunched in the yellow vinyl booth of an appallingly bright diner, his head aching from the night’s exertions.

His partner Carlsbad sat across from him, drawing no attention at all, which struck Sigmund as strange even in his exhausted state. Carlsbad was a human-shaped figure, but he was unclothed, his face was entirely featureless, and he was composed of a viscous-looking black substance instead of flesh. He was also nearly eight feet tall now; he’d been taller a few hours ago, but his size waxed and waned slightly based on the presence of local evil, and there was a bit less evil in the area after their mission.

“Why aren’t people screaming and running away from you?” Sigmund said. This was only his third time in the field with Carlsbad, but every other time, there’d been lots of screaming and running away—or at least attempts to run away.

“Oh, good, you’re all here again.” Carlsbad’s voice emerged from no apparent orifice, but it was low, rumbling, and good-natured. “You fainted, and I had to prop you up in the booth.”

“It was a long night. I’m okay now.” Sigmund looked around, suddenly afraid everyone in the diner was dead—that would explain the lack of screaming, if they were all past the point of screaming. But, no, there were old men and teenagers and miscellaneous locals eating waffles and drinking coffee in other booths and at the counter, all ignoring the strung-out little man and the very big non-man in their midst. The people he looked at barely shimmered, remaining fixed in the moment—he must be tired, if his powers had receded so completely.

A server appeared and set a cup of coffee in front of Sigmund, and another in front of Carlsbad. “Just the coffee?” she chirped.

Sigmund’s stomach roiled at the thought of food. He’d done an appalling number of drugs the night before, as usual on missions, and his appetite was nowhere to be found.

“For now,” Carlsbad said, and she went away. He turned his eyeless gaze back to Sigmund. “This was an operation in a populous area, so Carlotta cast an illusion on me. All these uninitiated people see me as a middle-aged guy with a beer belly and a kind face, unless I want them to see the real me. They probably think I’m your sponsor. You look like you fell off the wagon, and then the wagon ran you over.”

“That’s an old joke,” Sigmund muttered.

“Just trying to stay in character. We’re not expected back at the base until tomorrow or the day after. It’s so helpful when our enemies are stupid—we finished ahead of schedule. The Old Doctor says we can take a little R and R if we want.”

“What, here? Where even are we? Indiana or something?”

“Not remotely. The mountains of North Carolina.”

“Everything east of the Rockies might as well be marked ‘here there be dragons’ for me.” Sigmund was starting to come back to himself. The coffee, improbably, smelled delicious. “What is there to do around here?”

“Mountains to look at. Boulders to climb on. Bluegrass music to listen to. White water to raft on. Things like that.”

Sigmund groaned. He picked up his cup and took a long sip of coffee. The caffeine hit his system with a jolt, like a falling elevator hitting bottom. Since joining the Table, he routinely ingested quantities of amphetamines and other uppers that beggared belief, but apparently caffeine still had an impact on him, if he was tired enough. He looked around the diner, and the air shimmered with translucent veils. Even the relatively minor stimulation of caffeine was enough to intensify his powers, and allow him to peer back through time.

At this level he could peel back the layers of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months—perhaps even a full year, if he drank the whole cup of coffee. More powerful stimulants let him look back farther; centuries deep, sometimes. He glanced at their perky waitress, saw her grow still younger, becoming a teenager, cheering for some football team, radiant with carefully teased hair, then huffing paint from a paper bag under an overpass, then watching the sun rise over jagged rocks. The old man at the counter had accidentally run down a hitchhiker, hmm, three months ago, which might explain his pensive brooding in the present moment, beneath his gimme cap. The fry cook had been a fry cook and watched TV and gone to sleep and been a fry cook and watched TV and gone to sleep and been a fry cook for as far back as Sigmund could see. The twenty-something, brown-haired woman wearing a fussy old-fashioned tweed jacket had—

Had—

Hadn’t.

Sigmund stared at the woman, who sat eating scrambled eggs and reading a book open on the counter beside her, not acting like an incomprehensible enigma at all. Sigmund peeled time back in smaller and smaller increments. The woman was a graduate student, a TA at a local university, studying folklore, she’d only been there for a few months, just started this semester, and before that—nothing. Before a morning about three months ago, she didn’t exist. When Sigmund tried to look back farther, there was a gray, obscuring fog in his vision, and then the same nothing he saw if he tried to look into someone’s past earlier than their birth.

“—or I hear there are lots of meth labs around,” Carlsbad was saying. “You like meth, right? We could go out, find some, rob them, blow them up. I don’t know if that’s an act of heroism or villainy, actually. Good for people’s health, bad for the local economy. Sigmund? What’s up with you?”

“That woman.” Sigmund lifted his chin in her direction. “I was looking into her past. Three months ago, she didn’t exist.”

Carlsbad grunted. Sigmund knew Carlsbad had reservations about Sigmund leaving the safety of research in the Table’s archives and becoming a field agent, but he’d demonstrated absolute trust in Sigmund’s area of expertise. “You think she’s something we should tell the Old Doctor about?”

Sigmund considered. The current leader of their ancient and venerable organization—a group devoted to protecting an artifact touched by the hand of God, but which paid the bills by hiring out for coups, assassinations, heists, and missions of justice and/or vengeance—was theoretically interested in anything inexplicable, but wouldn’t it be better to bring the Old Doctor answers, rather than questions? “Let’s try to figure out what we’re dealing with first.”

Carlsbad shrugged. He didn’t care. Carlsbad was made of evil, and as long as there was treachery, villainy, cruelty, and horror in the world, he would endure, and be strong, and as a result, he didn’t worry about much. (Being made of evil didn’t mean he was evil, as he was at pains to point out; he had as much free will as anyone. People were mostly made of meat and chemicals, but they were capable of doing more than rotting and bubbling.)

Sigmund hadn’t been an initiate of the Table for very long, but he’d dreamed of this life—being a secret agent, discovering mysteries, meeting new people and punching their faces—and the shimmer and shine hadn’t worn off yet. He peered into the past again and saw where the woman lived: a tiny bungalow near campus with brown shingles and a steeply-angled roof, walls crawling with ivy, windows ancient and rippled, perched on the side of a wooded hill. “Her house is like a witch’s cottage,” Sigmund muttered.

“I love gingerbread,” Carlsbad said.

Sigmund shook himself back to the present. “Can you do . . . what’s it called . . . a sounding?”

Carlsbad cocked his head. “You want me to insert a slender rod into your urethra for your sexual gratification? I didn’t realize our relationship was headed in that direction.”

Sigmund, despite his access to the entire lives of anyone he chose to stare at, was still capable of a sort of provincial, blushing horror. “No! I mean that thing you do, where you look into someone—”

“Ah. We call it ‘dowsing,’ not sounding. Sure thing.” He rose and walked toward the counter, a vision as improbable as a sea monster traversing a bathtub. Carlsbad pretended to stumble, which was even more improbable, and put out a hand to steady himself on the woman’s shoulder. She looked at him in mild reproach and he apologized profusely before plucking a few napkins from the dispenser beside her and returning to the booth.

“I didn’t sense anything you’d call proper evil,” Carlsbad rumbled as he sat down. “Some resentment, but it hasn’t gone septic, and I don’t see signs of imminent metastasis. Are you sure you don’t want to tell the Old Doctor? Maybe the archivists have seen things like this before.”

Sigmund again instinctively rebelled against the idea of notifying their boss, but this time, he tried to examine why. Was it reluctance to waste the Old Doctor’s time? Probably not. The Old Doctor was one of the most terrifyingly patient people Sigmund had ever met. A desire to prove his own competence in the field? Maybe. But he also knew the Table had a habit of making use of any supernatural or psychic or other unlikely assets they found. In Sigmund’s case, they’d been content with bribery, and making him an offer he didn’t want to refuse, but there had been other cases, he knew, of more . . . forceful sorts of recruitment and containment. Anything that didn’t help the Table was a potential hindrance, after all. If Sigmund made a call, this woman could be swiftly bundled into a helicopter and taken to an undisclosable location, never to be seen again—and she wasn’t even a little bit evil. He should find out if she was a threat, first, because if she wasn’t, maybe she deserved to live her (apparently very new) life without being locked in a box in a Table basement.

“Are you up for a little fact-finding mission?” Sigmund said.

Carlsbad shrugged. “I don’t like white water rafting all that much anyway.”

• • • •

They left and went straight for the cottage, Carlsbad driving the black SUV the Table had provided for them. It was mid-morning, a bad time for break-ins, but the cottage was tucked away down a dirt lane with no visible neighbors. Carlsbad went onto the wooden porch, the boards creaking under his monstrous weight, and paused by the open door. “Well?” he said. “How do we get in?”

“I do intelligence,” Sigmund protested. “Infiltration is more your thing, right?”

Carlsbad shook his head. “I open doors by kicking them in. When the Table wants subtlety, they send Carlotta. You want a scalpel, but all you’ve got is a sledgehammer.”

“Wait.” This was the country, more or less, and people were more trusting out here. Sigmund fished in the pocket of his brown leather jacket and found a baggie that held a small bit of cocaine, all that remained from yesterday’s mission. He snorted about half of it up, and a weak bolt of lightning lanced through his brain. Gazing around the porch, he spooled through the past, and found what he needed.

Sigmund knelt down, reached under the steps, and found the little hook where their impossible girl’s spare key was hidden.

“Look at you, improvising in the field,” Carlsbad said.

They went inside, and the cottage was tiny, just a small living room, a bedroom, a bathroom, and a kitchen, all neat. No family photographs, and no photo albums, but lots and lots of books on assorted subjects, with a lot of mythology, folklore, and the occult. Sigmund flipped through volume three of Harry Middleton Hyatt’s Hoodoo, Conjuration, Witchcraft, and Rootwork while Carlsbad did a professional and thorough search of the premises.

Carlsbad emerged from the bedroom a while later, empty-handed. “I read all the papers I could find. Her name is Lila Young. Wonder if the last name is a joke? Enrolled at the university in a graduate program in folklore. Supposedly went to undergrad in Chapel Hill, but you say that’s impossible, so.” He shrugged. “Not much in the way of personal effects. Clothes run mostly to thrift-store fare. Seems like your basic impoverished scholar. Are you sure your ability isn’t just glitching out?”

“It never has before.” Sigmund peered around the living room, his vision tunneling into the past until the room became empty and dusty. Then he scrolled forward slowly, a few hours at a time, until he saw an unfamiliar man—tall, gangly, hair like dead brown grass—sweeping out the place and moving in the very bookshelves that Lila had filled. A bit later, after the place was put clean and furnished, the man appeared again, leading Lila in by the elbow. She was dressed in alarmingly brief shorts and a bright red halter that hugged her figure and bared her midriff, and she looked half-asleep. The man kissed her on the cheek and then left, closing the door after him. Lila stood, unmoving, as that evening turned to night . . . but when the sunlight shone in the front window and touched her face the next morning she snapped awake, looked around, frowned, and changed immediately into more comfortable clothes. From there, she went to the university for the first day of classes, and led what seemed to be a normal life.

“She did exist before that morning three months ago,” Sigmund muttered. “Why didn’t I see that when I looked at her? Some kind of spell to hide her past? There was a man, who brought her here . . .”

“A man? Maybe he made her. Maybe she’s a golem, and you couldn’t see her until she was imbued with life.”

Sigmund let his eyes refocus on the present. “Did she look like she was made of clay to you?”

“Maybe golem technology has improved since the sixteenth century.”

“Maybe. I have an idea. Can you drive?”

• • • •

“This is the opposite of a high-speed chase.” Carlsbad guided the SUV down a remote country road, a cracked asphalt ribbon hugged on both sides by rock walls.

“His car is turning left up there.” Sigmund stared out the windshield and into the past. He was following the man from his vision at Lila’s cottage, but not in the present: He’d walked out onto the porch still looking into the past and watched the man get into a beat-up silver hatchback and drive away, and he gave Carlsbad directions to follow the route the man had taken all those months ago. The superimposition of the past on a moving landscape, matching the progress of their movement in the present to the progress of the vehicle in the past, was giving him a headache, but the Old Doctor said exercises like this were good for developing his powers anyway.

They drove up a steep driveway, which leveled out in the yard of a gray wooden house with a sagging porch and a chimney that was missing a few bricks, like a giant had taken a bite from it but hadn’t liked the taste enough to eat the rest. “The car stopped here,” Sigmund said.

“It’s here now.” Carlsbad nudged him in the side. “Snap back to the present.”

Sigmund shook his head and blinked, and the hatchback was still there, but now with different patterns of mud streaked on its fenders. “Huh. We found him.”

“So what now?”

“I guess . . . We go talk to him?”

“You talk. I’ll loom. That inspires people to speak more freely, in my experience.”

“Don’t you look like a pudgy old guy right now?”

“I’ll drop the glamour when the time is right.”

Sigmund went up on the porch and knocked on the screen door. After a moment the inner door opened, and the gangly man appeared, frowning, wearing loose corduroy pants and a white t-shirt. Seen up close he was younger than Sigmund had realized, probably just in his late twenties. He peered at them suspiciously. “Help you?”

“I’d like to talk to you about Lila Young,” Sigmund said.

“Never heard of her.” The man started to shut the door.

Carlsbad stepped forward, pushed his hand through the screen door like it was made of tissue paper, and grabbed the man by the throat. He gurgled, then his eyes went wide and he tried to scream; Sigmund surmised that Carlsbad had decided to show his true form.

“Huh. Sigmund, there’s not much evil in this guy, either. Some curdled lust all wound around with guilt, but nothing you wouldn’t find in someone who had a bunch of gay one-night stands behind his wife’s back or something.”

“Okay. So we’ll just talk, and if he’s helpful, we won’t kill him.” Sigmund kept his voice bright and cheerful.

Carlsbad released the man, who stumbled backward with a whimper. Sigmund opened the torn screen door and went inside, Carlsbad following.

“Sit.” Sigmund gestured toward the couch. “Answer our questions, and we’ll leave you in peace.”

The man was on the edge of trying to run, but he glanced at Carlsbad, who shook his head in a slow, ponderous “no.” The man sank down on the dirty, flower-patterned couch, as if trying to disappear into it.

“What’s your name?” Sigmund said.

“Abel. Abel Nathan.”

“Old-fashioned name,” Carlsbad observed.

“Folks are old fashioned around here.” Abel stared at him, then looked at Sigmund. “What is he?”

Carlsbad spoke for himself. “I’m the guy who kills you if you don’t answer my partner’s questions.”

Sigmund sat beside Abel and patted his knee, making the man flinch. Sigmund wasn’t cruel by nature, but it was hard not to be a little intoxicated by the power of having Carlsbad at his side. “I saw your friend Lila this morning. I was just wondering how you met her.”

“How—what makes you think I know her?”

“Should I eat one of his fingers?” Carlsbad said. “People always stop being evasive after I eat one of their fingers.”

“Okay!” Abel sat on his hands. “Look, yes, Lila, I know her, what about it? What do you want with her?”

“Mostly I’m curious about why she didn’t exist before three months ago.”

Abel whimpered and bowed his head. “Have you been talking to Harland?”

Sigmund glanced at Carlsbad, who gave a minute shake of his head. That name hadn’t come up when he’d sorted through Lila’s papers, then. “Right now I’m talking to you, which is all that matters, Abel. Did you . . . find her, somewhere?”

Abel shook his head. “I . . . made her. Wished for her, anyway, and there she was.” Suddenly Abel shivered all over, and tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. “I was so lonely, is the thing. I could never seem to connect with anybody. The college girls don’t want anything to do with me, some local guy who works on a Christmas tree farm, and the women at church laugh at me behind my back, make fun of my hair and say I’m made of all elbows. I just . . . wanted someone to love me. I told my friend Harland how low I was, and he took me out to this place he knows in the woods, to this cave. He says it’s a special cave, that a spirit lives there. He told me the things I had to do—fire, sacrifice, chant—and then I made my wish, and . . . she came out. Lila. Just walked naked from the darkness. I’d never seen anyone more beautiful. Not like the girls on the internet, though, she was a real kind of beautiful. She walked right toward me, into my arms, and kissed me.”

Sigmund’s experience with women (and men, for that matter) mostly tended toward the dysfunctional and drug-addled, but even to him, this sounded pretty fucked-up. “You . . . made her? Wished into existence?”

Abel nodded, his eyes faraway. “At first, it was wonderful. I took her home, here, and we slept together, and it was amazing, everything I’d ever wanted, but when I tried to talk to her . . . I mean, she could talk, but it was just telling me how sexy I was, how much she wanted to . . .” He ducked his head. “Do things. With me. I finally figured out she wasn’t really real, she was just a sort of . . . living doll. And then it just felt sad and wrong and pathetic, the things we did, and I was even lonelier than before. I went back to Harland, and told him it didn’t feel right, and he said there was a way to give Lila a real life, an inner spirit, but it would cost me. I’d have to give up half the years of life I had left to me, and she’d get to live those years instead. Then she’d be her own person, and she’d have memories of a life, and a future. We had to make a place for her, but Harland owned an old cottage he wasn’t using, and we bought her clothes, like regular clothes, not the, ah, things I dressed her in. Harland knew someone who could get her a fake birth certificate and all that stuff. Then I asked if she would still love me after I gave her half my life . . . and he said she wouldn’t even know me.”

The tears had stopped now, and Sigmund reached over and patted Abel’s hand encouragingly. Abel blinked, looked at him, and smiled weakly. “But she’d be real, and I’d be able to introduce myself to her, and maybe we could fall in love, actual love. That’s what Harland said. Or I could just keep her, like a doll, and keep on like I was, like we were. I think Harland was surprised when I said I’d do it. But the chance at a short life with a woman who loves me, or a long life with a doll? It was no choice at all. We went back to the cave, in the night, and we did another ritual, and she didn’t seem to change. I didn’t feel anything—didn’t feel my life get any shorter either. Harland said the spirit was in her, but it was waiting, and that I should take her to the cottage, and leave her by a window. He said when the morning light hit her, she would come to life, real life.”

“It worked.” Sigmund wasn’t asking. He’d seen it happen. “Did you lose your nerve? Why didn’t you go to her, introduce yourself?”

“I did.” The voice was all bitterness now.

“Ah.” Sigmund hadn’t seen that happen, but then, he’d scrolled through Lila’s short life at high speed. If she’d had an encounter with Abel, it hadn’t seemed significant enough to snag his attention.

Abel slumped even deeper. “I went up to her when she was in a coffee shop studying and asked what she was reading, and she told me, but I didn’t even understand what she was talking about, some anthropology of something-or-other. She was nice enough, but I could tell she was just waiting for me to go away and stop bothering her. I used to go to her house after that and watch her, I’d hide in the trees and look in her windows, but she didn’t do anything but listen to music and read and write and then I felt sick and weird about watching her, so I stopped.”

Sigmund looked around the messy, entirely bookless room. “You and Lila don’t have much in common, I guess.”

“Nothing.” He sat a little straighter. “But I don’t regret it, all the same. She’s smarter than me. Better than me. I had to stop thinking of her as a girl I was supposed to love and more of . . . almost like . . . my daughter, you know? I gave up my life to give her a life. That makes me feel good. Sometimes.”

“Where does Harland live?” Sigmund said.

“I don’t know if I should tell you that.”

“Pretty sure you should,” Carlsbad said.

Abel sighed. “Out past Meat Camp. I don’t know the address. I can give you directions. You won’t hurt him?”

“Can’t see why we would. We’re almost done here. I just need to do one last thing.” Sigmund took out the baggie of cocaine and smiled. “I’d offer you some, but I need it.” He snorted the last few grains off his thumbnail and stared intently at Abel for a while, then grunted. “Okay. All set. Carlsbad? Can you, like, erase his memory, or something?”

“The only way I can erase somebody’s memory is by hitting them on the head really hard,” Carlsbad said. “I told you, I’m a sledgehammer.”

Sigmund sighed. “Right. Okay. I’d rather not have him call this Harland guy and warn him. Maybe instead of giving us directions you can come along with us and show us the way, okay, Abel?”

“Do I have any choice?” Abel said.

“Sure.” Carlsbad lifted one immense fist. “That memory-erasing idea is still on the table.”

“Just let me get my shoes on,” Abel replied.

• • • •

“So how did you meet Harland?” Sigmund was in the back seat beside Abel, who wasn’t speaking much apart from telling Carlsbad where to drive.

“Oh, just from . . . around. I don’t know. Seems like I’ve known him forever.”

Sigmund nodded. When he’d looked deep into Abel’s timeline, he’d found it only went back about two years. Abel’s entire life started with morning sunlight touching his face on the porch of that ugly gray house where he still lived. He was no more really real than Lila was. Maybe Harland had conjured Abel up from the same cave where Abel had summoned Lila. If there was some weird chthonic god granting wishes and making bargains in the mountains of North Carolina, that was something the Old Doctor would definitely want to know about. Ancient occult secret societies needed all the help they could get—and maybe Sigmund would get a promotion for finding it.

“Harland’s place is down there.” Abel pointed to a dirt road almost entirely obscured by huge rhododendron bushes growing on either side. Carlsbad turned the SUV down the lane and drove for almost a mile, kicking up dust in their wake. They reached a secluded hollow, surrounded on three sides by steep wooded hills. In the center stood a large house in the upscale rustic mode, lots of glass and rough wood, the sort of place a millionaire might consider a country getaway.

“Stay in the car,” Sigmund said when Abel started to unhook his seat belt.

A tall, white-haired man in loose-fitting black pants and a black silk shirt came out and stood on the porch, hands in his pockets, watching the vehicle. He was a big man—not compared to Carlsbad, admittedly, but Carlsbad wasn’t exactly a man—and handsome, with sharp blue eyes.

“That’s Harland?”

“Yes,” Abel said.

The other two emerged from the vehicle. “Do you have your glamour back on?” Sigmund said.

“He’s not running and screaming, is he?” Carlsbad answered as they approached the porch.

“Hello, gentlemen. How can I help you?” Harland’s voice was a pleasant baritone, his accent Southern, but elegantly so.

Sigmund stopped at the foot of the steps and looked up at him. “We want to ask you a few questions, about a magical cave that grants wishes.”

Carlsbad snorted. “And I thought I liked the direct approach.”

“Ah. You’ve been talking to Abel.” Harland was unperturbed. “Abel, come on over here.”

He didn’t raise his voice, and there was no way Abel could have heard him in the closed back seat, but he opened the door of the SUV and got out anyway.

Carlsbad looked at Abel levelly. “We told you to stay in the car, Abel.”

“Don’t blame him,” Harland said. “Abel, switch off.”

The gangly man stopped walking and stood, blank, his hands hanging at his sides.

Carlsbad grunted. “That seems like a dangerous activation phrase. What happens if somebody says ‘Abel, switch off the TV?’ He goes catatonic?”

“Only my voice does the trick.” Harland smiled at them, his teeth white and even. “Come, gentlemen. Have a seat. We’ll talk.”

Sigmund found Abel standing there like a mannequin a disturbing sight, but he acquiesced, sitting in a wicker chair beside a small round table. Carlsbad leaned against a support post and crossed his arms. Probably didn’t trust the chairs here to support his weight. He looked even more menacing and imposing than usual, somehow, but it was wasted on Harland, who couldn’t see past his illusion.

Harland sat in a chair on the other side of the table, and gestured to a pitcher of iced tea and three glasses. “Help yourselves.”

“You knew we were coming?” Sigmund said.

“I was peeking through Abel’s eyes a bit earlier, yes.” Harland poured himself a glass and sipped.

Sigmund grunted. “You made Abel. And Lila too? You have power over them.”

Harland shrugged. “They lead their own lives, for the most part. I look in occasionally, to make sure they aren’t in trouble. I never had children in the usual way—they are my legacy. I was so proud of Abel when he decided to give Lila an independent existence, even though it meant losing his plaything. I even told him it would cost him decades of his life, to make the decision more difficult, and still, he made the right choice. It’s always hit-or-miss, whether my creations will develop a true moral sense. I’m always happy when they do.”

“How many of them have you made?”

Harland shrugged. “A few, over the years.”

“How?” Carlsbad said. “What’s in that cave?”

“Ah, the cave.” Harland spread his hands. “There’s nothing there. Rocks. Darkness. Water. I just told Abel there was a spirit in the darkness. Really . . . the spirit is in me. And before you ask, I don’t know how I do it. I just can. I summon them into existence. I did a lot of research, when I was younger, and came across a piece of Tibetan lore—”

“Tulpas,” Carlsbad said. Sigmund looked at him, surprised, though he didn’t know why he was surprised. Carlsbad was ancient, and knew many things. “Golems, but made without clay. Creatures summoned into being by will and thought alone—imaginary friends made flesh. The stories say they sometimes develop minds of their own, if they take on enough vitality.”

Harland nodded, pleased. “Just so. That’s the closest I’ve ever come to an explanation for what I do. I can create mindless creatures, who do as they’re told, who feel no pain or sadness or joy or wonder—or I can imbue them with consciousness and genuine life.”

“Why do you do it?” Carlsbad said.

Harland spread his hand. “I was given this gift. A gift that only gods have. How could I not use it? I create life. Some of them are humble creatures like Abel, simple but good. I tried my best to make him happy, within his limits.” Harland shook his head. “Some of them are brilliant, like Lila. I create them, I watch their development, and I nudge and steer them toward being good people and making the world a better place. A power like this . . . it’s a great responsibility.”

Sigmund cleared his throat. “We’re representatives of a sort of . . . secret society. The exact nature of that society is hard to explain, but let’s just say, we could use a man of your talents.”

Harland nodded, as if he’d always expected this day to come. “I’m sure you could, but I’m an old man. Set in my ways. I like my life, and the work I do in the world.”

“You could have access to amazing secrets, and power,” Carlsbad said. Sigmund glanced at him when he spoke. Something about him was different. What was it?

“Oh?” Harland’s blue eyes glittered. “Like what?”

“I—” Sigmund began, and then stopped. He looked at Carlsbad again.

Carlsbad, who was at least four inches taller than he had been at Abel’s house.

“Could you do a dowsing?” Sigmund said.

“Probably a good idea.” Carlsbad took a step forward. “Before we go revealing too many secrets.”

“What is this?” Harland’s voice was mild.

“Just a little diagnostic.” Carlsbad put a hand on the man’s shoulder, and then went rigid. “Ungh,” he said, and grew another inch, visibly. “Oh, Sigmund, this . . . this . . .” He pulled his hand loose and stepped back, then wiped his palm on the wall, like he’d touched something slimy. “This . . . he . . . cruelty. Sadism. Torture. Murder. Worse.”

“I always knew there had to be other people with powers.” Harland’s voice was still mild. He threw the contents of his iced tea glass into Sigmund’s face, blinding him, and there was a crash of breaking glass. Wiping tea from his eyes, Sigmund saw Harland had smashed Carlsbad over the head with the glass pitcher. That was like hitting a mountain with a daffodil, but the old man danced away before Carlsbad could grab him.

Harland shouted “Attack!” and Abel suddenly switched on, racing up the steps and hurling himself at Carlsbad. The door of the house opened, too, and a dozen naked men and women, from teenagers to old men, some model-beautiful and others maimed and gnarled, poured out, joining the pile-on.

Sigmund fell out of his chair and scrambled away, but the newcomers didn’t approach him—instead, Harland did, drawing a folding knife from his pocket.

The adrenaline and other fear chemicals coursing through Sigmund’s body had the same affect uppers did, heightening his powers, and against his will he saw flashes of Harland’s past. The man had created scores of people over the years. Some he’d imbued with consciousness, and tortured in the shed behind his house. One woman had lived a free life for decades, marrying and having children, until Harland seized control and made her kill her family, then restored her consciousness, laughing at her horror and watching her kill herself. He’d made people, given them false memories, convinced them they were best friends or siblings, and forced them to fight to the death for his amusement. He watched through the eyes of his creations, choosing the right moments to disrupt their lives for purposes of humiliation or violence. His yard was full of graves; his eyes were full of cold amusement.

“I am a god.” Harland opened the knife, and pointed the tip at Sigmund as he advanced. “I give life, and that life is mine to do with as I please. Who are you to judge me? Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?”

The Table believed in God. More than believed: They knew about God. They had relics, they had texts, and they had verified visionaries. The true God was a watchmaker. He’d created the world, filled it with wonders, set it spinning, and then left it behind to run its own course, His sights set on other tasks. God was, perhaps, neglectful—but he was not cruel. Not like Harland.

Sigmund’s back hit the porch railing and he had nowhere else to go.

Harland crouched, the point of his blade just inches from Sigmund’s left eye. The tulpas trying to tear Carlsbad apart were grunting and panting in the background. “Abel was fun. Oh, the way he agonized over Lila! Hilarious. I haven’t decided what to do with her, yet. I might let her run free for a few years, then have her wake up in a strange motel room in a bed full of blood and body parts. I wonder what she’ll do then? It’s always so interesting to find out.”

“People will come looking for us,” Sigmund said.

“That’s fine. I like meeting new people, and killing them. It gets tedious only killing people I made myself.” Still smiling affably, he moved the knife.

Carlsbad loomed behind him, and brought his immense hands together, clapping his palms against either side of Harland’s head.

The result was incredibly messy, but it was also definitive.

• • • •

They sat on the hood of the SUV, watching Harland’s house burn. “I feel bad I had to kill Abel,” Carlsbad said. “I wonder if he would have switched back on if he’d lived?”

“Oh, God, I never even thought about that,” Sigmund said. He’d taken a shower in Harland’s master suite, getting the man’s blood and brains off his face, trying to ignore the hooks and eyebolts that festooned the shower walls. “What if killing Harland made his creations die?”

“Could be. Hard to say. All the ones here were dead before I squished Harland’s head. Good thing he didn’t get a look at my real form. He might not have trusted his dolls to finish me then.” He patted Sigmund on the shoulder. “Should we go check on Lila?”

“Yeah. Let’s.” Sigmund lifted a suitcase, full of cash and jewels and bearer bonds Carlsbad had found in Harland’s safe, and got into the car.

• • • •

When he’d peered into her timeline, Sigmund had noticed Lila was a regular at the diner, eating most of her meals there, doubtless for convenience rather than the quality of the food. She was there now for dinner, eating meatloaf with a book open beside her on the table. Sigmund watched her from his booth and felt something like peace.

“If we tell the Old Doctor about this, you know he’ll be interested in Lila,” Carlsbad said. “He’ll snatch her up, and hand her off to the empirical researchers, and they’ll take her apart to see how she’s made, to see if they can figure out how to duplicate whatever Harland did. Being able to make people, that could come in pretty handy.”

Sigmund nodded. “I know.”

“So what are we going to do?”

Sigmund sipped his tea. Decaf, herbal, nothing that gave him even the slightest buzz. He watched Lila, with her head bowed, reading and reading, filling her young mind with old wisdom. Her life had begun in a beam of sunlight in an empty room, but it could go anywhere from there. Just because the foundations of her existence were built on nothingness didn’t mean she couldn’t create a world of her own.

Sigmund realized he didn’t really know anything about Lila. He’d scanned her timeline, and meddled in her world, but that was all. He was almost certainly idealizing her, getting a crush on her, putting her on a pedestal. His feelings weren’t as messed up as Abel’s obsession had been, but they were in the same general, shallow vicinity.

Trying to get to know the real Lila was one solution, but Sigmund didn’t have many illusions: He was a cross between a mercenary and a magician, and he was a drug addict too. There was no way inserting himself further into Lila’s life would make her life better.

The other solution was to go away and think of Lila fondly as a stranger he’d helped out, once upon a time.

“Sigmund?” Carlsbad prompted. “Did you faint again?”

“No. I was thinking we should go over to Lila’s house and put that suitcase full of money under her bed. Higher education is expensive, and Harland isn’t around to fill her bank account anymore.”

Carlsbad laughed. “So you’re not going to tell the Old Doctor about any of this, I assume.”

Sigmund shook his head. “What’s there to tell? We’re on rest and recreation. As far as I can remember, we spent the day antiquing and tasting local honey. Lila? Never heard of her.”

Carlsbad sighed. “I have to stop hanging out with you, Sigmund.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because just being around you makes me feel about six inches shorter.”

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Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt is the author of over twenty novels, including Heirs of Grace and the forthcoming The Wrong Stars, and many short stories. His work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Year’s Best Fantasy, Best New Horror, and other nice places. He’s a Hugo Award winner, and has been a finalist for World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Stoker, Mythopoeic, and Nebula Awards, among others. He lives in Berkeley CA and works as a senior editor at Locus, a trade magazine devoted to science fiction and fantasy publishing.