Childhood friends Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead didn’t expect to see each other again, after parting ways under mysterious circumstances during high school. After all, the development of magical powers and the invention of a two-second time machine could hardly fail to alarm one’s peers and families.
But now they’re both adults, living in the hipster mecca San Francisco, and the planet is falling apart around them. Laurence is an engineering genius who’s working with a group that aims to avert catastrophic breakdown through technological intervention into the changing global climate. Patricia is a graduate of Eltisley Maze, the hidden academy for the world’s magically gifted, and works with a small band of other magicians to secretly repair the world’s every-growing ailments. Little do they realize that something bigger than either of them, something begun years ago in their youth, is determined to bring them together–to either save the world, or plunge it into a new dark ages.
A deeply magical, darkly funny examination of life, love, and the apocalypse, Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky is available in January 2016 from Tor Books. Read chapter three below, and come back all week for additional excerpts!
The classrooms on the western side of Canterbury Academy’s pale cement mausoleum had windows facing the parking lot, the sports fields, and the two-lane highway. But the east windows looked down a muddy slope to a stream, beyond which an uneven fringe of trees shivered in the September wind. In the school’s stale-marshmallowscented air, Patricia could look east and imagine running wild.
The first week of school, Patricia smuggled an oak leaf in her skirt pocket—the nearest thing she had to a talisman, which she touched until it broke into crumbs. All through Math and English, her two classes with views of the east, she watched the stub of forest. And wished she could escape there and go fulfill her destiny as a witch, instead of sitting and memorizing old speeches by Rutherford B. Hayes. Her skin crawled under her brand-new training bra, stiff sweater, and school jumper, while around her kids texted and chattered: Is Casey Hamilton going to ask Traci Burt out? Who tried what over the summer? Patricia rocked her chair up and down, up and down, until it struck the floor with a clang that startled everyone at her group table.
Seven years had passed since some birds had told Patricia she was special. Since then, she’d tried every spellbook and every mystical practice on the internet. She’d misplaced herself in the woods over and over until she knew by heart every way to get lost. She carried a first-aid kit, in case she met any more injured creatures. But no wild things ever spoke, and nothing magical ever happened. As if the whole thing had been some kind of prank, or she’d failed a test without knowing.
Patricia walked through the playground after lunch with her face upcast, trying to keep pace with an unkindness of ravens passing over the school. The ravens gossiped among themselves, without letting Patricia in on their conversation—just like the kids at this school, not that Patricia cared.
She’d tried to make friends, because she’d promised her mom (and witches kept their promises, she guessed)—but she was joining this school in the eighth grade, after everyone else had been here a couple years. Just yesterday, she’d stood at the girls’ room sink next to Macy Firestone and her friends as Macy obsessed about Brent Harper blowing her off at lunch. Macy’s bright lip gloss perfectly set off her Creamsicle hair dye. Patricia, coating her hands with oily-green fake soap, had been seized by a conviction that she, too, ought to say something funny and supportive about the appeal, and yet the tragic insufficiency, of Brent Harper, who had twinkly eyes and moussed-up hair. So she’d stammered that Brent Harper was The Worst—and at once she had girls on both sides of her, demanding to know exactly what her problem was with Brent Harper. What had Brent ever done to her? Carrie Danning spat so hard, her perfect blond hair almost lost a barrette.
The ravens flew in no formation Patricia could discern, even though most of the school’s lessons, this first week, had been about finding patterns in everything. Patterns were how you answered standardized-test questions, how you committed large blocks of text to memory, and ultimately how you created structure in your life. (This was the famous Saarinian Program.) But Patricia looked at the ravens, loquacious in their hurry to go nowhere, and could find no sense to any of it. They retraced their path, as if they were going to notice Patricia after all, then looped back toward the road.
What was the point of telling Patricia she was a witch, and then leaving her alone? For years?
Chasing the ravens, Patricia forgot to look down, until she collided with someone. She felt the impact and heard the yelp of distress before she saw whom she’d run over: a gangly boy with sandy hair and an oversized chin, who’d fallen against the chicken-wire fence at the playground’s edge and rebounded onto the grass. He pulled himself upright. “Why the hell don’t you look where you’re—” He glanced at something on his left wrist that wasn’t a watch, and cursed way too loud.
“What is it?” Patricia said.
“You broke my time machine.” He yanked it off his wrist and showed her.
“You’re Larry, right?” Patricia looked at the device, which was definitely broken. There was a jagged crack in its casing and a sour odor coming from inside it. “I’m really sorry about your thing. Can you get another? I can totally pay for it. Or my parents can, I guess.” She was thinking that her mom would love that, another disaster to make up for.
“Buy another time machine.” Larry snorted. “You’re going to, what, just walk down to Best Buy and get a time machine off the rack?” He had a faint scent of cranberries, maybe from some body spray or something.
“Don’t be sarcastic,” Patricia said. “Sarcasm is for feeble people.” She hadn’t meant that to rhyme, plus it had sounded more profound in her head.
“Sorry.” He squinted at the wreckage, then carefully unpeeled the strap from his bony wrist. “It can be repaired, I guess. I’m Laurence, by the way. Nobody calls me Larry.”
“Patricia.” Laurence held out his hand and she hoisted it three times. “So was that actually a time machine?” she asked. “You’re not joking or whatever?”
“Yeah. Sort of. It wasn’t that great. I was going to toss it out soon in any case. It was supposed to help me escape from all this. But instead, all it did was turn me into a one-trick pony.”
“Better than being a no-trick pony.” Patricia looked up again at the sky. The ravens were long gone, and all she saw was a single slowly disintegrating cloud.
* * *
After that, Patricia saw Laurence around. He was in some of Patricia’s classes. She noticed that Laurence had fresh poison-ivy scars on both skinny arms and a red bite on his ankle that he kept raising his pant leg to inspect during English class. His knapsack had a compass and map spilling out of the front pouches, and grass and dirt stains along its underside.
A few days after she wrecked his time machine, she saw Laurence sitting after school on the back steps near the big slope, hunched over a brochure for a Great Outdoors Adventure Weekend. She couldn’t even imagine: Two whole days away from people and their garbage. Two days of feeling the sun on her face! Patricia stole into the woods behind the spice house every chance she got, but her parents would never let her spend a whole weekend.
“That looks amazing,” she said, and Laurence twitched as he realized she was looking over his shoulder.
“It’s my worst nightmare,” he said, “except it’s real.”
“You’ve already gone on one of these?”
Laurence didn’t respond, except to point to a blurry photo on the back of the leaflet, in which a group of kids hoisted backpacks next to a waterfall, putting on smiles except for one gloomy presence in the rear: Laurence, wearing a ridiculous round green hat, like a sport fisherman’s. The photographer had captured Laurence in the middle of spitting out something.
“But that’s awesome,” Patricia said.
Laurence got up and walked back into the school, shoes scuffing the floor.
“Please,” Patricia said. “I just… I wish I had someone to talk to, about stuff. Even if nobody can ever understand the things I’ve seen. I would settle for just knowing someone else who is close to nature. Wait. Don’t walk away. Laurence!”
He turned around. “You got my name right.” His eyes narrowed.
“Of course I did. You told it to me.”
“Huh.” He rolled that around in his mouth for a moment. “So what’s so great about nature?”
“It’s real. It’s messy. It’s not like people.” She talked to Laurence about the congregations of wild turkeys in her backyard and the vines that clung to the walls of the graveyard down the road, Concord grapes all the sweeter for their proximity to the dead. “The woods near here are full of deer and even a few elk, and the deer have almost no predators left. A fully grown buck can be the size of a horse.” Laurence looked horrified at that idea.
“You’re not really selling it,” Laurence said. “So… you’re outdoorsy, huh?”
“Maybe there’s a way we can help each other. Let’s make a deal: You help me convince my parents I’m already spending plenty of time in nature, so they stop sending me frakking camping all the time. And I’ll give you twenty bucks.”
“You want me to lie to your parents?” Patricia wasn’t sure if that was the sort of thing an honorable witch would do.
“Yes,” he said. “I want you to lie to my parents. Thirty bucks, okay? That’s pretty much my entire supercomputer fund.”
“Let me think about it,” Patricia said.
This was a major ethical dilemma. Not just the lying, but also the part where she would be keeping Laurence from an important experience his parents wanted him to have. She couldn’t know what would happen. Maybe Laurence would invent a new windmill that would power whole cities, after observing the wings of dragonflies. She pictured Laurence years from now, accepting a Nobel Prize and saying he owed it all to the Great Outdoors Adventure Weekends. On the other hand, maybe Laurence would go on one of those weekends, fall into a waterfall, and drown, and it would be partly Patricia’s fault. Plus, she could use thirty bucks.
Meanwhile, Patricia kept trying to make other friends. Dorothy Glass was a gymnast, like Patricia’s mom had been, and the mousy, freckled girl also wrote poetry on her phone when she thought nobody was looking. Patricia sat next to Dorothy at Convocation, when Mr. Dibbs, the vice principal, talked about the school’s “No Scooters” policy and explained why rote memorization was the best way to repair the short attention spans of kids who had been raised on Facebook and video games. The whole time, Patricia and Dorothy whispered about the webtoon everyone was watching, the one with the pipe-smoking horse. Patricia felt a stirring of hope—but then Dorothy sat with Macy Firestone and Carrie Danning at lunch and looked right past Patricia in the hallway afterward.
And so Patricia marched up to Laurence as he waited for the bus. “You’re on,” she said. “I’ll be your alibi.”
* * *
Laurence really was building a supercomputer in his locked bedroom closet, behind a protective layer of action figures and paperbacks. The computer was cobbled together from tons of parts, including the GPUs from a dozen pQ game consoles, which had sported the most advanced vector graphics and complex narrative branching of any system ever, during the three months they were on the market. He’d also snuck into the offices of a defunct game developer two towns over and “rescued” some hard drives, a few motherboards, and some assorted routers. The result was bursting out of its metal corrugated rack space, LEDs blazing behind piles of junk. Laurence showed all of this to Patricia, while explaining his theories about neural networks, heuristic contextual mapping, and rules of interaction, and reminding her that she had promised to tell nobody about this.
At dinner with Laurence’s parents (super-garlicky pasta), Patricia talked a good game about how she and Laurence had gone rock climbing and they had even seen a fox, up close. She almost said the fox ate out of Laurence’s hand, but she didn’t want to oversell. Laurence’s parents were overjoyed and startled to hear how many trees Laurence had been up— neither of them looked like they’d hiked in years, but they had some hang-up about Laurence spending too much time sitting at his computer instead of filling his lungs. “So glad Laurence has a friend,” said his mom, who wore cat glasses and had her curls dyed an obscene shade of red. Laurence’s dad, who was morose and bald except for one brown tuft, nodded and offered Patricia more garlic bread with both hands. Laurence’s family lived in a dingy subdivision in an ugly cul-de-sac, and all the furniture and appliances were old. You could see through the carpet to the cinder floor.
Patricia and Laurence started spending time together, even when she wasn’t vouching for his outdoorsiness. They sat next to each other on the bus, on a field trip to the Cannery Museum, which was a whole facility devoted to cans. And every time they hung out, Laurence showed her another weird device—like, he had built a ray gun that would make you sleepy if he aimed it at you for half an hour. He hid it under the table at school and tested it on Mr. Knight, the Social Studies teacher, who did start yawning right before the bell.
One day in English class, Ms. Dodd asked Patricia to get up and talk about William Saroyan—no, wait, just to recite William Saroyan from memory. She stumbled over the gravel road of words about the insects who live in fruit, until she noticed a light shining in her eye, blinding her, but only on the right side. With her left eye, she saw the wall of bored faces, drawing not enough entertainment at her discomfort, and then she found the source of the dazzling blue-green beam: Laurence had something in his hand. Like a pointer.
“I—I have a headache,” Patricia said. She was excused.
In the hallway during Passing Period, she yanked Laurence away from the drinking fountain and demanded to know what the hell that had been.
“Retinal teleprompter,” Laurence gasped, looking actually scared of her. Nobody had ever been scared of Patricia. “Still not quite perfected. If it had worked, it would have projected the words directly onto your eye.”
Patricia felt actually scandalized at this. “Oh. But isn’t that cheating?”
“Yes, because memorizing the speeches of Rutherford B. Hayes will prepare you for life as an adult.” Laurence rolled his eyes and walked away. Laurence wasn’t sitting around feeling sorry for himself, he was making things. She had never met anyone like him before. And meanwhile, what could Patricia do with her so-called magic powers? Nothing. She was totally useless.
Excerpted from All the Birds in the Sky © Charlie Jane Anders, 2015