Meet Roger. Skilled with words, languages come easily to him. He instinctively understands how the world works through the power of story. Meet Dodger, his twin. Numbers are her world, her obsession, her everything. All she understands, she does so through the power of math. Roger and Dodger aren’t exactly human, though they don’t realise it. They aren’t exactly gods, either. Not entirely. Not yet.
Meet Reed, skilled in the alchemical arts like his progenitor before him. Reed created Dodger and her brother. He’s not their father. Not quite. But he has a plan: to raise the twins to the highest power, to ascend with them and claim their authority as his own.
Godhood is attainable. Pray it isn’t attained.
Author Seanan McGuire introduces readers to a world of amoral alchemy, shadowy organizations, and impossible cities in the standalone fantasy, Middlegame, out from Tor.com Publishing on May 7th. Read Part Four below, or head back to the beginning with Part One!
The Improbable Road
TIMELINE: 02:13 CST, JULY 3, 1986.
The man whose name is not Mr. Smith wakes in a dark, silent room, with the feeling that something is terribly wrong. The shape of his wife is a familiar distortion in the blankets beside him. A strange, animal smell hangs in the air, coppery and thick.
He is not alone.
The thought has barely formed when a different shape looms over him, grinning widely enough to show every tooth in its head. They are even, white, and perfect, and yet he somehow can’t stop himself from thinking there’s something wrong with them, that they’re mismatched, that this assortment of teeth was never meant to share a single jaw, a single terrible smile.
“Good evening, sir,” says the shape. He recognizes it now. Reed’s woman, the scowling piece of subservient arm candy who moves in and out of their meetings like she has a right to be there. Leigh. That’s her name. He’s never been this close to her before. Her eyes… something about her eyes is broken. Like her smile, they are perfect—and ineffably wrong.
“Don’t try to move,” says Leigh—and the man, who is not Mr. Smith, flinches in response, or tries to. The command does not carry to his limbs. He is frozen, and still, she is smiling.
“You men,” she says. “You foolish, foolish men. You want to control the world, but you never stopped to ask yourselves what that meant, did you? What alchemy truly was, what it could do—you only cared about what it could give you. Congratulations. It gave you to me.”
He recognizes the smell in the air now. He doesn’t know how he could have missed it before, but maybe it was a matter of wanting: he didn’t want to recognize the smell of blood, didn’t want to ask himself where the blood had come from.
His wife is so still, and he is terribly afraid he knows.
“Reed gave you to me,” says Leigh. “You see, we’ve reached the stage at which investors are no longer necessary. But I think you can make one last contribution, and that means I get to tell you a story. Words are power. You’ll be worth more to us if you understand why you have to die. It’s like… homeopathic medicine for the soul. Your flesh will retain the memory of everything I tell you, and that will make it easier to use. Are you comfortable?”
He can’t speak. He can’t answer her. He can only roll his eyes in terror. From the way her smile softens, she knew that before she asked.
“Good,” she says. There’s a knife in her hand. How is there a knife in her hand? He didn’t even see her move. “This is the story of a woman who had too many ideas, and the man she made so she could make them all real. You’ve heard of A. Deborah Baker, haven’t you? Everyone has heard of A. Deborah Baker.”
The knife the knife oh God the knife, and he can’t scream, he can’t move, but when she lifts his arm, he feels his wife’s blood, sticky on his skin. The pain is clear and bright, and the only mercy here is that he can’t turn his face to see what she’s writing, one slow cut at a time.
“She wrote a series of children’s books about a place called the Up-and-Under. I know your kids read them. I saw them on the shelf when I went to visit Emily in her room.”
He has never wanted to scream so much in his life.
“Fourteen books before she died. Six movies, four of them made after she was dust and ashes. Her cultural footprint spans the world. Everyone knows A. Deborah Baker, and her dear creations, sweet Avery and courageous Zib. But did you know that you became one of her acolytes when you wrote your first check?”
Her voice is calm, even soothing. It has a rhythm to it, like she’s trying to whisper a small child into dreaming. If it weren’t for the pain, for the body of his wife beside him and the bodies of his children lying in their rooms (all three of them, oh God, he knows she’s killed all three of them, because a woman like this doesn’t leave survivors, and why can’t he move), it would almost be pleasant.
“Her real name was Asphodel. That’s what the A stands for. She was the greatest of the American alchemists. Don’t look so surprised. What better way to hide your teachings in plain view than to encode them in something that would be beloved of children the world over. She swayed generations to her way of thinking. She changed the way alchemy works. It’s the middle ground between magic and science. It has repeatable results, but only if people truly believe it will work that way. Asphodel Baker rewrote the world by writing a new world into existence. She breathed life into a dying discipline, and the Congress hated her for it, because she was so much greater than they could ever hope to become. Petty fools. They still hate her, even though all they know of her now is what she left behind. They’ll all pay. Soon enough, and forever.”
The pain is so big it is eating the world. She is cutting pieces of him away, and he cannot fight, and he cannot defend himself, and he could not save his family.
“She made Reed by herself, proving she could create life one piece at a time. She made him and tasked him to do what she couldn’t, to finish what she barely had the time to begin. And look—she’s gone, and he remains. He asked me to thank you for your support, for helping him to come this far. But your services will no longer be needed. You have reached the end of the improbable road.”
The knife moves, again and again the knife moves, until consciousness slips away from the man whose name was not Smith, and life follows shortly on its heels.
Leigh Barrow perches on the edge of the dead man’s bed, bathed in blood. Then, smile fading, she bends forward. The real work begins. There is much to harvest, and only so many hours before dawn.
The improbable road spools onward, and outward, and the journey continues from here.
Excerpted from Middlegame, copyright © 2019 by Seanan McGuire.