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 four below, or head back to the start with chapter one!
Laurence’s parents decided Patricia was his girlfriend, and they wouldn’t hear reason. They kept offering to chaperone the two kids to school dances, or to drive them to and from “dates.” They wouldn’t shut up about it.
Laurence wanted to shrink to nothing.
“Here’s the thing about dating at your age.” Laurence’s mom sat facing him as he ate breakfast. His dad had already gone to work. “It doesn’t count. It’s just like practice. Training wheels. You know this isn’t going to amount to anything. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important.” She was wearing sweatpants with a blouse.
“Thanks for your input, Mom. I appreciate all of your keen insights.”
“You always make fun of your poor mother.” She swept her hands in opposite waves. “But you ought to listen. Puppy love is when you learn game, or you never do. You’re already a nerd, honey, you just don’t want to be a nerd with no dating skills. So I’m just saying, you shouldn’t let thoughts about the future keep you from making the most of your middle-school fling. Listen to one who knows.” Laurence’s mom had gone to her fifth-choice grad school instead of her first choice, to be closer to his dad, and that had been the first of many compromises that had ended them up here.
“She’s not my girlfriend, Mom. She’s just someone who’s teaching me to appreciate tick bites.”
“Well, maybe you should do something about that. She seemed like a very sweet girl. Very well brought up. She had nice hair. I would make a move if I were you.”
Laurence felt so uncomfortable in this conversation, not just his skin was crawling—his bones, his ligaments, his blood vessels were crawling, too. He felt pinned to his stiff wooden chair. At last he understood what all those old horror stories meant when they talked about an eldritch dread, creeping into your very soul. That was how Laurence felt, listening to his mother attempt to talk to him about girls.
Even worse was when Laurence heard the other kids at school whispering about him and Patricia. When Laurence was in the locker room before PE, kids who normally paid zero attention to him, jocks like Blaze Donovan, started asking him if he’d gotten her shirt off yet. And offering him make-out advice that sounded like it came from the internet. Laurence kept his head down and tuned them out. He couldn’t believe he’d lost his time machine, just when he needed it most.
One day, Laurence and Patricia were sitting adjacent to each other at lunch—not “with” each other, just adjacent to each other, at the same long table where boys mostly sat at one end and girls at the other. Laurence leaned over and asked, “People think we’re… you know… boyfriend-girlfriend. Doesn’t that kind of weird you out?” He tried to sound as though he thought it was no big deal, but he was just expressing concern about Patricia’s feelings.
Patricia just shrugged. “I guess people are always going to have something, right?” She was this weird fidgety girl, with eyes that looked brown sometimes and green sometimes, and dark straight hair that never defrizzed.
Laurence didn’t really need to hang out with Patricia at school, because he only needed her to vouch for his after-school time, and maybe weekends. But he felt awkward sitting by himself when she was also sitting by herself, usually frowning out the nearest window. And he found himself curious to ask her stuff and see how she responded—because he never, ever knew what Patricia would say about anything. He only knew it would be something weird.
* * *
Laurence and Patricia sat under the up escalator at the mall. They each had a Double Chocolate Ultra Creamy Super Whip Frostuccino with decaf coffee in it, which made them feel super grown up. They were lulled by the machinery working right over their heads, the wheel of steps going around forever, and they had a view of the big fountain, which made a friendly splashing noise. Soon both their drinks were nothing but throaty snorty noises as they took the last pulls on their straws, and they were both blitzed on sugar.
They could see the feet and ankles of people passing on the down escalator, between them and the fountain. They took turns trying to guess who these people were, based just on their footwear.
“That lady in the white sneakers is an acrobat. And a spy,” Patricia said. “She travels around the world, doing performances and planting cameras in top-secret buildings. She can sneak in anywhere because she’s a contortionist as well as an acrobat.”
A man in cowboy boots and black jeans came past, and Laurence said this was a rodeo champion who had been challenged to a Dance Dance Revolution showdown against the world’s best break-dancer and it was happening at this very mall.
A girl in UGG boots was a supermodel who had stolen the secret formula for hair so shiny it brainwashed anyone who saw it, said Patricia, and she was hiding at the mall, where nobody would ever expect a supermodel to go.
Laurence thought the two women in smart pumps and nylons were life coaches who were coaching each other, creating an endless feedback loop.
The man in black slippers and worn gray socks was an assassin, said Patricia, a member of a secret society of trained killers who stalked their prey, looking for the perfect moment to strike and kill undetected.
“It’s amazing how much you can tell about people from their feet,” said Patricia. “Shoes tell the whole story.”
“Except us,” said Laurence. “Our shoes are totally boring. You can’t tell anything about us.”
“That’s because our parents pick out our shoes,” said Patricia. “Just wait until we’re grown up. Our shoes will be insane.”
* * *
In fact, Patricia had been correct about the man in the gray socks and black shoes. His name was Theodolphus Rose, and he was a member of the Nameless Order of Assassins. He had learned 873 ways to murder someone without leaving even a whisper of evidence, and he’d had to kill 419 people to reach the number nine spot in the NOA hierarchy. He would have been very annoyed to learn that his shoes had given him away, because he prided himself on blending with his surroundings. His was the gait of a mountain lion stalking the undergrowth, clad in the most nondescript black slippers and mountaineer socks. The rest of his outfit was designed to fade into the background, from the dark jacket to the cargo pants with their bulky pockets stuffed with weapons and supplies. He kept his bony, close-shaved head down, but every one of his senses was primed. His mind ran countless battle scenarios, so that if any of the housewives, mall-walking seniors, or teenagers attacked without warning Theodolphus would be ready.
Theodolphus had come to this mall looking for two special children, because he needed a pro bono hit to keep up his standing in the Nameless Order. To that end, he had made a pilgrimage to the Assassin Shrine in Albania, where he’d fasted, inhaled vapors, and gone nine days without sleep. And then he’d stared into the ornately carved Seeing Hole in the floor of the Shrine, and he’d seen a vision of things to come that still replayed in his nightmares. Death and chaos, engines of destruction, whole cities crumbling, and a plague of madness. And at the last, a war between magic and science that would leave the world in ashes. At the center of all this were a man and a woman, who were still children now. His eyes had bled as he’d crawled away from the Seeing Hole, his palms scraped away and his knees unhinged. The Nameless Order had recently imposed a strict ban on killing minors, but Theodolphus knew this mission to be holy.
Theodolphus had lost his prey. This was the first time he had ever been inside a mall, and he was finding the environment overwhelming with all of the blaring window displays, and the confusing letter-number code on the giant map. For all Theodolphus knew, Laurence and Patricia had spotted him somehow, gotten wind of his plans, and laid an ambush. The housewares store was full of knives that moved on their own. The lingerie store had a cryptic warning about the Miracle Lift. He didn’t even know where to look.
Theodolphus was not going to lose his cool over this. He was a panther—or maybe a cheetah, some type of lethal cat, anyway—and he was just toying with these stupid children. Every assassin has moments when he or she feels the grip slipping, as though the cliff face is spinning away and a sheer drop beckons. They had talked about this very issue at the assassin convention a few months earlier: that thing where even as you pass unseen through the shadows, you fear everybody is secretly watching and laughing at you.
Breathe, panther, Theodolphus told himself. Breathe.
He went into the men’s room at the Cheesecake Factory and meditated, but someone kept pounding on the door asking if he was about done in there.
There was nothing for it but to eat a large chocolate brownie sundae. When it arrived at his table, Theodolphus stared at it—how did he know it was not poisoned? If he really was being watched, someone could have slipped any of a dozen substances into his sundae that would be odorless and flavorless, or even chocolate flavored.
Theodolphus began to sob, without making any sound. He wept like a silent jungle cat. Then at last, he decided that life would not be worth living if he couldn’t eat ice cream from time to time without worrying it was poisoned and he began to eat.
Laurence’s father came and picked up Laurence and Patricia half a mile from the mall, right around the time that Theodolphus was clutching his throat and keeling over—the ice cream had indeed been poisoned— and Patricia did what she mostly did when she talked to Laurence’s parents: make stuff up. “And we went rock climbing the other day, and white-water rafting, although the water was more brown than white. And we went to a goat farm and chased the goats until we tired them out, which let me tell you is hard, goats have energy,” Patricia told Laurence’s father.
Laurence’s father asked several goat questions, which the kids answered with total solemnity.
Theodolphus wound up banned from the Cheesecake Factory for life. That tends to happen when you thrash around and foam at the mouth in a public place while groping in the crotch of your cargo pants for something, which you then swallow in a single gulp. When the antidote kicked in and Theodolphus could breathe again, he saw his napkin had the sigil of the Nameless Order on it, with an ornate mark that more or less said, Hey, remember, we don’t kill kids anymore. Okay?
This was going to require a change of tactic.
Excerpted from All the Birds in the Sky © Charlie Jane Anders, 2015