May 24 2013 8:30am
Check out Seanan McGuire's new ebook serial, starting with Indexing, out now from 47North:
“Never underestimate the power of a good story.”
Good advice…especially when a story can kill you.
For most people, the story of their lives is just that: the accumulation of time, encounters, and actions into a cohesive whole. But for an unfortunate few, that day-to-day existence is affected—perhaps infected is a better word—by memetic incursion: where narratives the rest of the world considers fairy tales becomes reality, often with disastrous results.
A motley team struggling with their own unfolding narratives, they are tasked with identifying potential outbreaks using the Aarne-Thompson Indexing and making sure the story doesn’t reach “ever after”…because if it does, someone is usually dead, broken—or worse. When you're dealing with fairy tales in the real world, it doesn't matter if you're Cinderella, Snow White, or the Wicked Queen: no one gets a happy ending.
Memetic incursion in progress: estimated tale type 7.90 (“Snow White”)
Alicia didn’t feel well.
If she was being honest, she hadn’t been feeling well for a while now. The world was spinning, and everything seemed hazy and unreal, like she was seeing it through the filter of a dream. Maybe she was. Dreaming, that is; maybe she was dreaming, and when she woke up, everything would be normal again, rather than wrapped in cotton and filled with strange signs and symbols that she couldn’t quite understand. Maybe she was dreaming…
In a daze, she called a cab and left the house, the door standing open and ignored behind her. The dog would get out. In that moment, she didn’t have the capacity to care. Alicia didn’t feel well, and when you don’t feel well, there’s only one place to go: the hospital.
Alicia was going to the hospital, and when she got there, they would figure out what was wrong with her. They would figure out how to fix her, and everything would be normal again. She just knew it.
My day began with half a dozen bluebirds beating themselves to death against my window, leaving little bloody commas on the glass to mark their passing. The sound eventually woke me, although not before at a least a dozen of them had committed suicide trying to reach my bedside. I sat up with a gasp, clutching the sheets against my chest as I glared at the windows. The damn things had been able to get past the bird-safety net again, and I still couldn’t figure out how they were doing it.
A final bluebird hit the glass, making a squishy “thump” sound. Feathers flew in all directions, and the tiny birdie body fell to join the others. I glared at the bloody pane for a few more seconds before turning my glare on the clock. It was 5:22am—more than half an hour before my alarm was set to go off, which was entirely unreasonable of the universe.
“Once upon a fuck you people,” I muttered, shoving the covers off of me and onto the floor. If I wasn’t going to get any more sleep, I was going to get ready for work. At least in the office, there would be other people to receive my hate.
Wildflowers had sprouted from the hallway carpet again, this time in a clashing assortment of blues and oranges. I didn’t recognize any of the varieties, and so I forced myself to step around them rather than stepping on them the way that I wanted to. Research and Development would be able to figure out what they were, where they originated, and what tale type variants they were likely to be connected to. The wildflowers were usually random as far as we could tell, but they had occasionally been enough to give us a lead. Rampion flowers meant a three-ten was getting started somewhere, while the strange blue-white blooms we had dubbed “dew flowers” meant that a three-oh-five was underway. It wasn’t an exact science, but very little about what we did was anything like exact.
Turning the water in my shower all the way to cold produced a freezing spray that chased away the last unwelcome remnants of the previous night’s dreams and left me shivering, but feeling like I might have a better day than the one indicated by the heap of dead bluebirds outside my window. Really, if all that went weird today was a few dead birds and some out-of-place flowers, I was doing pretty well.
I work for the ATI Management Bureau. Our motto is “In aeternum felicitas vindactio.” Translated roughly, that means “defending happily ever after.” We’re not out to guarantee that all the good little fairy tale boys and girls get to ride off in their pumpkin coaches and on their silver steeds. They’ve been doing that just fine since the dawn of mankind. They don’t need any help from a government-funded agency so obscure that most people don’t even suspect that we exist. No, our job is harder than that. Fairy tales want to have happy endings, and that’s fine—for fairy tales—but they do a lot of damage to the people around them in the process, the ones whose only crime was standing in the path of an onrushing story. We call those “memetic incursions,” and it’s our job to stop them before they can properly get started. When we fail…
When we fail, most people don’t hear about that, either. But they do hear about the deaths.
There’s no dress code in my office, not even for the field teams, since many of us have reasons to avoid the more common suits and ties. I still liked to keep things formal. I pulled a plain black suit out of my closet, selecting it from a rack that held ten more, all of them virtually identical. Pairing it with a white button-down shirt and a black tie left me looking like an extra from the set of Men in Black, but that didn’t bother me much. Clichés are relatives of the fairy tale, and tropes aren’t bad; they go with the territory.
My gun and badge were on the nightstand next to my SPF 200 sunscreen. I scowled at the bottle. I hate the smell of the stuff—it smells like a shitty childhood spent locked in the classroom during recess because the school couldn’t take responsibility if I got burned, but also like trying to find the right balance between flesh-toned foundation and sun protection. None of that changed the fact that if I went out without lathering up, I was quickly going to change my complexion from Snow White to Rose Red. “Lobster” is not a good look for me.
My phone rang as I was finishing the application of sunscreen to the back of my neck. I glanced at the display. Agent Winters. “Answer,” I said curtly, continuing to rub sunscreen into my skin.
The phone beeped, and Sloane’s voice demanded, “Where are you?”
“In my bedroom,” I said, reaching for a tissue to wipe the last of the clinging goo from my fingers. “I’m getting ready for work. Where are you?”
“Uh, what? Are you stupid, or just stupid? Or maybe you’re stupid, I haven’t decided. Have you checked your texts this morning?”
I paused guiltily. I hadn’t taken my phone into the bathroom while I showered, and I could easily have missed the chime that signaled an incoming text. “Let’s say I didn’t, to save time. What’s going on?”
“We have a possible seven-nine kicking off downtown, and management thought that maybe you’d be interested in, I don’t know, showing the fuck up.” Sloane’s voice dropped to a snarl on the last few words. “Piotr sent everyone the address ten minutes ago. Most of the team is already en route.”
Full incursions are rare. We usually get one or two a month, at most. Naturally, this one would kick off before I’d had breakfast. “I’ll be there in five minutes,” I said.
“You don’t even know where—”
“Goodbye, Sloane.” I grabbed the phone and hit the button to hang up on her with the same motion, pulling up my texts as I bolted for the door. Even obscure branches of law enforcement can break the speed limit when there’s a good reason, and a Snow White starting to manifest downtown? Yeah, I’d call that a damn good reason.
There are a few things you’ll need to know about fairy tales before we can get properly started. Call it agent orientation or information overload, whatever makes you feel more like you’ll be able to sleep tonight. It doesn’t really matter to me.
Here’s the first thing you need to know: all the fairy tales are true. Oh, the specific events that the Brothers Grimm chronicled and Disney animated may only have happened once, in some kingdom so old that we’ve forgotten whether or not it ever really existed, but the essential elements of the stories are true, and those elements are what keep repeating over and over again. We can’t stop them, and we can’t get rid of them. I’m sure they serve some purpose—very little happens without a reason—but it’s hard to focus on that when you’re facing a major beanstalk incident in Detroit, or a gingerbread condo development in San Francisco. People mostly dismiss the manifestations, writing them off as publicity stunts or crazy pranks. It’s better that way. Not many people have the kind of iron-clad sanity that can survive suddenly discovering that if you’re born a seven-nine, you’re inevitably going to wind up poisoned and left for dead…or that rescue isn’t guaranteed, since once you go inanimate, the story’s focus switches to the Prince. Poor sap.
We use the Aarne-Thompson Index to map the manifestations as much as we can, cross-referencing fairy tales from all over the world. Not every seven-nine has skin as white as snow and a thing for short men, even if Snow White is the best known example of the breed. Not every five-eleven is actually going to snap and start trying to kill her stepdaughter or stepsisters, although the urge will probably rear its ugly head a time or twenty. Like any rating system, the ATI has its flaws, but it mostly gets the job done, and it’s better than running around in the dark all the damn time.
Some folks say using the ATI dehumanizes our subjects, making it easier to treat them like fictional creatures to be dealt with and disposed of. Then again, most of them have never put in any real hours in the field. They’ve never seen what it takes to break girls like Agent Winters out of the stories they’ve gotten tangled up in before the narrative consumes them. Me, I got lucky; I got my sensitivity to stories by being adjunct to one, rather than being an active part. My mother was one of the most dangerous ATI types—a four-ten, Sleeping Beauty. She was in a deep coma when my twin brother and I were born, the misbegotten children of the doctor who was supposed to be treating her injuries and wound up taking advantage of her instead.
She slept through our birth, just like the stories said she should. We didn’t pull the poisoned needle from her finger when we tried to nurse; we pulled her life support cable. Mom died before the ATI cleanup crew could figure out where the narrative energy was coming from, leaving us orphans. Under normal circumstances, the narrative would have slammed us both straight into the nearest story that would fit. The cleanup crew didn’t let that happen though, despite the fact that I was already halfway into the Snow White mold, and my brother was just as close to becoming a Rose Red. In a very real sense, I owe them my life, or at least my lack of singing woodland creatures.
Most of the subjects we deal with are innocents, people who wound up in the wrong place at the wrong time and got warped to fit into the most convenient slots on the ATI. Others are born to live out their stories, no matter how much damage that does to the world around them. It’s not a choice for them. It’s a compulsion, something that drives them all the way to their graves.
That’s the second, and most important, thing you need to know about fairy tales: once a story starts, it won’t stop on its own. There’s too much narrative weight behind a moving story, and it wants to happen too badly. It won’t stop, unless somebody stops it.
Whoever had initially scrambled the field team was following the proper protocol: I started driving blindly toward the address Piotr had sent to my phone, only to come up against a cordon nearly half a mile out from my destination. It was disguised as a standard police blockade, but the logos on the cars were wrong, and the uniforms were straight out of our departmental costume shop. Anyone who knew what the local police were supposed to look like would have caught the deception in an instant. Fortunately for us, it was early enough in the day that most people just wanted to find a clear route to Starbucks, and weren’t going to mess around trying to figure out why that officer’s badge had the wrong motto on it.
I pulled up to the cordon and rolled down my window, producing my badge from inside my jacket. A fresh-faced man in an ill-fitting policeman’s uniform moved toward the car, probably intending to ask me to move along. I thrust my badge at him.
“Special Agent Henrietta Marchen, ATI Management Bureau,” I said sharply. “Tell your people to get the hell out of my way. We’ve got a code seven-nine, and that means I’ve got places to be.”
The young man blanched. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said. “We were told to stop all cars coming this way, and we thought all agents were already inside the impact zone.”
“Mmm-hmm. And while you’re apologizing, you’re not moving anything out of my way.” I put my badge back inside my jacket. “Apology accepted, sentiment appreciated, now move.”
He nearly tripped over his own feet getting away from my car and running to enlist several more of the “officers” in helping him move the barrier out of my way. I rolled my window back up to discourage further conversation, sitting and drumming my fingers against the steering wheel until my path was clear. I gunned the engine once, as a warning, before hitting the gas and rocketing past the cordon like it had personally offended me—which, in a certain way, it had. I detest lateness. When you’re late in a fairy tale, people wind up dead. And not true-love’s-kiss, glass-coffin-naptime dead. Really dead, the kind of dead you don’t recover from. I am notoriously unforgiving of lateness, and being late myself wasn’t improving my mood.
The control van was parked at the absolute edge of the probable impact zone. I pulled up next to it. The door banged open barely three seconds later, and five feet, eleven inches of furious Goth girl threw herself out of the vehicle, already shouting at me. At least, her mouth was moving; thanks to the bulletproof, charmproof, soundproof glass in my car windows, I couldn’t hear a damn thing. I smiled, spreading my hands and shaking my head. It was a shitty thing to do, but considering the morning I’d been having, winding Sloane up a little was perfectly understandable.
She stopped shouting and showed me the middle fingers of both her hands, an obscene gesture that was only enhanced by the poison apple green nail polish that she was wearing. It clashed nicely with her hair, which was currently an unnaturally bright shade of red with black tips. Nothing about her could be called “subtle” by any conventional means, and that was how she liked it. The more visible she was, the less she felt at risk of sinking back into her own story.
“Getting a little saucy today, I see,” I said, finally taking pity on Sloane and opening my car door so that she could shout at me properly. “What’s the situation?”
“Andy’s working with the grunts to clear out as many of the local businesses as possible before shit gets ugly,” said Sloane. “And you’re late.”
“Yes, but if we’re still clearing coffee shops, I’m not late enough that you’ve been waiting for me at all.” I took another look around the area. In addition to our control van, I could see four more vehicles that were almost certainly ours, going by their paint jobs and lack of identifying features. “Who called it in?”
“Monitoring station,” said Sloane. She shoved her hands into her pockets, slouching backward until her shoulders were resting against the side of the van. The resulting backbend made my own spine ache in sympathy, but she continued as if she weren’t trying to emulate a contortionist, saying, “They started getting signs of a memetic incursion around two o’clock this morning, called it in, didn’t get the signal to wake us because there was nothing confirmed. The signs got stronger, the alerts kept coming, on alert ten they woke me, I came into the office and sifted the data, and we started mobilization about twenty minutes later.”
I nodded. “And you’re sure it’s a seven-nine?”
“She has all the symptoms. Pale skin, dark hair, affinity for small animals—she works in a shelter that takes in exotics and half the pictures we were able to pull off of her Facebook profile show her with birds, rats, or weird-ass lizards hanging out on her shoulders.”
The image of the bluebirds committing suicide via my window pane flashed across my mind, there and gone in an instant. I managed not to shudder, turning the need for motion into a nod instead. “Have we identified her family members?”
“Yeah. No siblings, father remarried when she was nine years old, stepmother owns a beauty parlor and tanning salon. She’s pretty much perfect for the profile, which is why we’re here.”
“Mm-hmm.” I considered Sloane. She was our best AT-profiler; she could spot a story forming while the rest of us were still looking at it and wondering whether it was even in the main Index. But she was also, to put it bluntly, lazy. She liked knowing where the stories were going to be so that she could get the hell out of their way. She didn’t like knowing the details behind the narrative. Details made the victims too real, and reality wasn’t Sloane’s cup of tea. “And we’re positive about her tale type?”
Irritation flashed briefly in her eyes, there and gone in an instant. “Jeffrey confirmed my research, and he said we haven’t had a seven-nine here in years. We’re due.”
“If that’s all we’re going by, we’re due for a lot of things.” Some stories are more common than others. Seven-nines are thankfully rare, in part because they take a lot of support from the narrative. Dwarves aren’t cheap. Other stories require smaller casts and happen more frequently. Sadly for us, some of the more common stories are also some of the most dangerous.
Sloane’s expression darkened, eyes narrowing beneath the red and black fringe of her hair. “Well, maybe if you’d shown up when we were first scrambling this team, you’d have been able to have more input on what kind of story we’re after. You didn’t show up for the briefing, so the official designation is seven-nine.”
I bit back a retort. Another promptly rose in my throat, and I bit that back as well. Sloane didn’t deserve any of the things I wanted to say to her, no matter how obnoxious she was being, because she was right; I should have been there when the team was coming together. I should have been a part of this conversation.
“Where’s Andy?” I asked.
“Behind you,” said a mild, amiable voice. It was the kind of voice that made me want to confess my sins and admit that everything in my life was my own fault. That’s the type of quality you want in a public relations point man.
I turned. “What’s our civilian situation?”
“I’ve cleared out as many as I could, but this isn’t an area that can be completely secured,” said Andy, as if this were a perfectly normal way for us to begin a conversation. Tall, thick-waisted, and solid, he looked like he could easily have bench-pressed me with one arm tied behind his back. It was all appearances: in reality, I could have taken him in either a fair or an unfair fight, and Sloane could mop the floor with us both. What Andy brought to the table was people skills. There were very few minds he couldn’t change, if necessary, and most of those belonged to people who were already caught in the gravitational pull of the oncoming story.
Put in a lineup, we certainly made an interesting picture. All three of us were dark-haired, although Andy and I were both natural, while Sloane’s black came out of a bottle. Andy had skin almost as dark as his hair. Sloan was pale but still clearly Caucasian. I had less melanin than your average sheet of paper, and could easily have been mistaken for albino if not for my blue eyes and too-red lips—although more than a few people probably assumed that my hair was as dyed as Sloane’s, and that my lip color came courtesy of Cover Girl. We definitely didn’t look like any form of law enforcement. That, too, was a sort of truth in advertising, because the law that we were enforcing wasn’t the law of men or countries. It was the law of the narrative, and it was our job to prevent the story from going the way it always had before—impossible as that could sometimes seem.
We set the junior agents and the grunts to holding the perimeter while we walked two blocks deeper into our isolation zone, trying to get eyes on our target. We found her getting out of a cab that had somehow managed to get past the cordon—not as much of a surprise as I wanted it to be, sad to say. Most of the police didn’t have any narrative resistance to speak of, and our junior agents weren’t much better. If the story wanted her to make it this far, she’d make it. The obstacles we were throwing in her way just gave her tale one more thing to overcome.
There are times when I wonder if the entire ATI Management Bureau isn’t a form of narrative inertia, something gathered by a story so big that it has no number and doesn’t appear in the Index. We’d be a great challenge for some unknown cast of heroes and villains. And then I push that thought aside and try to keep going, because if I let myself start down that primrose path of doubts and disillusionment, I’m never coming back.
Our target paid her cabbie before turning to stagger unsteadily down the sidewalk. She was beautiful in the classical seven-nine way, with sleek black hair and snowy skin that probably burned horribly in the summer. She looked dazed, like she was no longer quite aware of what she was doing. One of her feet was bare. She probably wasn’t aware of that, either.
Andy pulled out his phone, keying in a quick series of geographical tags that would hopefully enable us to predict her destination before she could actually get there. Finally, he said, “She’s heading for the Alta Vista Medical Center.”
I swore under my breath. “Of course she is. Where else would she be going?” Alta Vista was the largest hospital in the city. Even if we’d been able to close off eighty percent of the traffic coming into our probable impact zone, we couldn’t close or evacuate the hospital. Not enough people believe in fairy tales anymore.
“Shoot her,” said Sloane.
“We’re not shooting her,” said Andy.
Sloane shrugged. “Your funeral.”
“Let’s pretend to be professionals…and pick up the pace,” I snapped. Sloane and Andy exchanged a glance, briefly united against a common enemy—me. They knew that I wanted them to be mad at me rather than each other, and they accepted it as the way the world was meant to be. Besides, we all knew that our job would be easier this way.
We followed the target all the way down the road to Alta Vista, hanging back almost half a block to keep her from noticing us. Our caution was born more of habit than necessity; she was deep into her narrative haze, moving more under the story’s volition than her own. We could have stripped down and danced naked in front of her and she would just have kept on walking.
“If we’re not going to stop her from getting where she’s going, why are we even bothering?” Sloane walked with her hands crammed as far into the pockets of her denim jacket as they would go, her shoulders in a permanent defensive hunch. “She’ll play out whether we’re here or not. We could go out, get breakfast, and come back before the EMTs finish hooking her to the life support.”
“Because it’s the polite thing to do,” said Andy. He was always a lot more at ease with this part of the job than Sloane was, probably because the only thing Andy ever escaped was a respectable profession that he could tell his family about. Sloane missed being a Wicked Stepsister by inches, and she’s always been uncomfortable around the ATI cases that tread near the edges of her own story. I can’t blame her for that. I also can’t approve any of her requests for transfer. Jeff’s fully actualized in his story, and I’m in a holding pattern, but Sloane was actually averted. That gives her a special sensitivity to the spectrum. She’s the only one who can spot the memetic incursions before they get fully underway.
“She’s a seven-nine,” snarled Sloane, shooting a poisonous glare in Andy’s direction. Metaphorically poisonous: she never matured to the arsenic-and-apples stage of things. Thank God. Once a Wicked Stepsister goes that far, there’s no bringing them back to reason. “You can’t do anything for them, short of putting a bullet in their heads. Even then, the dumb bitches will probably just get permanently brain-damaged on the way to happy ever after.”
Andy raised an eyebrow. “Gosh, Sloane, tell us how you really feel.”
The target approached the doors of the Alta Vista Hospital. Even at our half-block remove, we saw them slide open, allowing her to make her way inside. If the story went the way the archivists predicted, her own Wicked Stepmother would be waiting inside, ready to hand her a box of poisoned apple juice or a plastic cup of tainted applesauce. That would let the story start in earnest. That’s the way it goes for the seven-nines. All the Snow Whites are essentially the same, when you dig all the way down to the bottom of their narratives.
Sloane shifted her weight anxiously from one foot to the other as we waited, looking increasingly uncomfortable as the minutes trickled by and the weight of the impending story grew heavier. Then she stiffened, her eyes going wide in their rings of sheltering kohl. “There isn’t a five-eleven anywhere inside that hospital,” she said, and bolted for the doors.
Swearing, Andy and I followed her.
Sloane had been a marathon runner in high school, and she’d continued to run since then, choosing it over more social forms of exercise. She was piling on the speed now, running hell-bent toward the hospital doors with her head slightly down, like she was going to ram her way straight through any obstacles. Andy had settled into a holding pattern about eight feet behind her, letting her be the one to trigger any traps that might be waiting. It wasn’t as heartless as it seems. As the one who had come the closest to being sucked into a story of her own without going all the way, Sloane is not only the most sensitive—she’s also the most resistant. She could survive where we couldn’t.
“Sloane!” I bellowed. “If it’s not a seven-nine, what is it?”
She didn’t have time to answer, but she didn’t need to. She came skidding to a stop so abruptly that Andy almost slammed into her from behind, both of them only inches from the sensor that would trigger the automatic door. Those inches saved them. I could see the people in the lobby through the glass as they started falling over gently in their tracks, all of them apparently sinking into sleep at the same moment.
I let momentum carry me forward until I came to an easy stop next to Sloane and Andy. “Great,” I sighed. “A four-ten.”
I hate Sleeping Beauties.
Indexing © Seanan McGuire 2013