illustration by Toeken

Travellers in an Autumn Wood

Andrew Barton

Andrew Barton takes a satisfyingly complex look at identity in “Travelers in an Autumn Wood” by setting their murder mystery in futuristic world with a cast of characters that includes both clones and “one who is many” (many bodies that share a consciousness), among others. It’s a clever way to breathe fresh air into a classic style; enjoy!

The floatplane left her in silence. Taryn Liang savored it for a moment before she stepped off the age-worn dock onto solid earth, where a stranger wore the face she saw in her own mirror every day—part of one of the world’s stranger sisterhoods, cloned in a lab and salted into the world.

“Agent Liang,” the other woman said in a voice that was nearly Taryn’s own, but reedy and sharp. She smiled from lips painted half-blue, half-white, and from eyes bright and untroubled, but covered herself in long white robes and hid her pointed ears beneath sky-bright hair that reached past her neck. “So glad you could come. I’m Anwen Fairbreeze. In Ilmatar’s name, be welcome in Winter Harbour.”

“Thanks.” Taryn offered her hand. Anwen peered at it for a moment before returning a cool, uncertain handshake. “I’d like to get things moving as soon as possible.”

“You’ll have to wait for morning, I’m afraid,” Anwen said. “You wouldn’t be able to reach the scene before dark, and the forest is no place to be at night. In the meantime, we’re happy to extend you our hospitality, and I thought you would appreciate a chance to speak with Quincunx yourself.”

Anwen led her past a hedge maze where a short, sweaty white man was trimming the green to where a pale man and dark-skinned woman sat on the grass with eyes turned skyward. They acknowledged the two women with a flicker of their gaze, but made no motion to stand.

“Funny,” the woman said. “Same face, different souls. You two and I are like mirrors.”

“I suppose so,” Taryn said. “Glad to meet you, Quincunx.”

“I imagine you’ve rarely had the opportunity to speak to one who’s many,” the man said. “There are not many of us, after all—even fewer now, from your perspective.”

“Perspective’s everything,” Taryn said. Up close, there wasn’t much to distinguish Quincunx from a solitary person. Aside from geometric haircuts that masked the computers and link equipment beneath, the silver wire antennas that looped around their ears, and the identical tattoos on their wrists, they looked no more related than any two people she might pass at random. “I’m a long way from any conclusion, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

“That’s good,” the woman said. “Pleasure to meet you, Agent Liang. You can call this body Boom, and the other is Orange. I look forward to assisting your investigation.”

“Speaking of anticipation, Their Highnesses are anxious to meet you as well,” Anwen said, trying desperately to catapult herself into the center of things. Taryn wanted to scoff. The King and Queen of Winter Harbour had bought the place after the quake and thrown its doors open to elves, zooms, and edge-dwellers who wanted to leave the world behind—glorified superintendents with pyrite crowns, but their support of IRIS gave them enough influence to have Taryn flown to the edge of the world. “They just want to know that you’re on the case.”

“Anwen, you know it’s not that simple,” Orange said.

“It seems straightforward to me,” Taryn said. “There’s been a major crime committed, and you’re a linked. Squarely IRIS’s interest from where I’m standing.”

“Perhaps, but we weren’t obligated to involve you,” Boom said. “I could’ve contacted the police if I wanted to settle things coarsely, but the situation calls for a fine hand.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“I’m looking for a judge,” Orange said. “I need you to help me decide whether to pursue this as someone who has been injured, or someone who has been murdered.”

“I’ve been giving it thought,” Taryn said, “but I can’t figure out why my opinion is so important.”

She walked with Quincunx along an old logging road carved through the forest. They’d passed the gate at first light and found it guarded by a pair of bow-wielding elves, squinting into the forest as if all they needed to do was wait until the world unravelled and sails appeared on the western horizon.

“You’re overthinking it,” Quincunx said. The woman Boom had come with her, for all the difference that distinction made. “You’re an outsider. You can consider things that Anwen, bless her, never would.”

“Just because we have the same genes, it doesn’t mean we think at all alike,” Taryn said. “It’s not like being linked.”

“You have no idea what it’s like to be linked,” Quincunx said. “Please don’t impose your experiences over mine. That’s the sort of habit that leads to a conclusion unsupported by the facts.”

“I’m sorry,” Taryn said. “What is it like?”

“Imagine four balls on the edge of a cliff,” Quincunx said, before shaking her head and chuckling. “No—imagine a river that encounters an obstacle and splits into streams. They all find their way past and join back into a river on the other side. That’s me. Boom is a stream, and Quincunx the river.”

“Sounds like it takes a lot of practice,” Taryn said. “What if two bodies synced with irreconcilable observations?”

“My bodies can filter what they sync with the rest,” Quincunx said. “I’ve no intention of becoming some mad five-headed dragon, Agent Liang. That’s why this is so difficult. It could be years before I’m five again.”

They walked in silence until the road met a narrow trail that weaved through the woods, wide enough for a person to pass but no more than that. Quincunx led her along the path, brushing against rough bark and leafy trees and the chittering forest, until it opened into a clearing beside a stream. An alert man stood next to an aegis screen spread over the ground.

“I kept Pungent here to ensure sanctity,” Quincunx said. “It’s been quiet. You’ll find exactly what we did.”

Taryn put on a pair of thin gloves, powered on her multitool and kneeled to peel the aegis screen away. As she lifted an edge from the ground, the unmistakable stench of rot and decay struck her nose and leapt down her throat. She pulled the rest of it away to reveal a pale man’s body, sprawled face-down in the dirt. The back of his skull had been bashed open, exposing a grey slurry of brain meat and broken shards of the link equipment. Further down, she found a deep and jagged incision in the man’s lower abdomen.

“Whoever did this wasn’t a surgeon,” Taryn said as she scanned the scene. “Not much left to sync with.”

“No,” Quincunx said. “Each of my bodies has a backup drive, but whoever did this knew to remove it. I’ll imagine we’ll find it smashed to pieces somewhere.”

“You’re probably right,” Taryn said. There was a smooth, fist-sized rock siting near the body, coated with a bloody sheen, and she scanned it with her multitool. “Do you know this rock?”

“I use it as part of the meditation,” Quincunx said. “Guess I’ll have to find another one now.”

“Only the five of you used it?” Quincunx gave a quick nod. “Whoever picked this up should’ve left some DNA behind, but they didn’t.”

Quincunx was silent. After a moment, Taryn picked a muffled sobbing out of the forest’s whispers. Pungent was crouched and folded in tears, and Boom had kneeled to him in solidarity—but Taryn couldn’t imagine that was enough. One brain or two, how well could a person comfort themself?

“Are you all right?” Taryn asked.

“It’s ridiculous,” Quincunx said through Boom’s mouth. In ones and twos, her own tears were beginning to flow. “I should be better than this, but just seeing myself like that . . . it’s ridiculous. All I can think about is how I’ll have to learn to play the drums all over again. So much of it’s just muscle memory—that was all Prickle, and now someone’s scooped out that part of me.”

“Someone specific,” Taryn said as her multitool beeped—she’d had it assembling scene recreations, laying foundations for whatever evidence she found to rest upon. “Someone at least a hundred and seventy-two centimeters tall and closer to Prickle than I am to you. Did you come here alone?”

“All the time,” Quincunx said. “Solitude is important, even for someone like me, and sometimes I just can’t take another round of meditation in the tanks.”

“I know cops who’d call this a suicide because the alternative’s complicated,” Taryn reviewed the rest of the multitool’s results and shook her head. “Does anyone in town have a stealth suit?”

“I can’t imagine why anyone would need one,” Quincunx said. “They’d tell you invisibility is for Ilmatar, not mortals.”

“Invisibility’s overrated,” Taryn said. “The real trick with those suits is once you’re in one, it’s easy to scour the outside. You can go wherever and not leave a trace of your own DNA behind. Find the suit, and we’ll find the person.”

“That easily?”

“People fuck up,” Taryn said as she replaced the aegis screen. “Life’d be a lot harder for me otherwise. You should get this body on ice. I’ve got some questions for a lot of people.”

The gate guards weren’t as helpful as Taryn had hoped. If she hadn’t been an elf herself, she doubted they’d have helped at all. They met her with glares of simmering hostility, their hands brushing the knives that hung from their belts.

“Are you implying we let a killer through?” one of them, a cold-eyed man named Ailpein. “That we don’t take our duty seriously? You, of all people, should know better than that.”

“Please don’t assume I’m someone I’m not,” Taryn said. “I’m not questioning your dedication.”

“Yeah, only our competence, hey?” said Mike, the second guard, who hid behind thick eyebrows. He plucked his bowstring like a guitar. “You cops are all the same. Nobody left through this gate that night. Are you going to check the logs and get out of our faces, or will things get unpleasant?”

Taryn found the transit log, a hardbound book with records kept in black ink and a steady hand. The most recent entry was her own name, written after the first few letters of Anwen’s had been struck out. The page accounting for the day of Quincunx’s attack was as Mike had said, and a quick pass with her multitool might tell her if it had been modified—but not if it had been left blank.

“Satisfied?” Ailpein said when she emerged from the gatehouse. “Or do you still think this is our fault?”

“I don’t think anything,” Taryn said with a smile and narrowed eyes. “And I’m not a cop. But thanks so much for everything.”

“All these knives,” Taryn said, kneeling and peering into a display case. Long knives, short knives, jagged knives, knives with intricately carved handles, knives with blades that curved like scimitars—it was a window into a dimension of pain. “Who the hell is buying so many knives?”

“You’re even sadder than Anwen.” Deborah the shopkeeper, a pale baseline woman with greying hair, smiled at her with a twisted lip. “Ilmatar’s breath cuts as sharp as any knife, you know. I supply the guards, and orders come in from all over the world—I shipped a dozen ceremonials to some bonkers cult in England just the other day. People like blades, always have.”

Taryn stood up from the case and groaned. There were more blades in Deborah’s shop than people in Winter Harbour. “Had any problems with things going missing?”

“Hey, now, what are you implying, little girl?” Taryn couldn’t help but snort at that—Deborah was a full foot shorter than she was, not tall enough for suspicion. “I run a tight operation, pay my rates right and properly. If one of my blades were to disappear, I’d know about it. Mine’s a sharp mind.”

“I don’t believe you’ll find what you’re looking for here, Agent,” Quincunx said. “Even if my attacker did take something from here, it would make no sense to return it. Better to bury it somewhere we’d never find it.”

“That’s right, you won’t, and I’ll thank you to not bother me about this again,” Deborah said. “I’ve had enough of nosy priestesses and police for a lifetime already.”

“Do I look like a cop to you?” Taryn’s gaze bored into Deborah’s eyes. “I’m here to find answers, not beat people in back alleys and lie to your face and break your heart. If you can’t offer even the modicum of respect to acknowledge who I am, then I’ll happily fuck off forever.”

She stalked out of the knife store with Quincunx close behind, feeling like she’d been drowning in oil. She found a wide outbuilding and squatted down, her back pressed against the wooden wall.

“I shouldn’t have done that,” Taryn said. “I really shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry you had to be there to see it.”

“Identity is a hard thing to master,” Quincunx said. “I know that better than anyone here. For what it’s worth, I think it’s better to make an ass of yourself in defense of who you really are than to give in meekly to an image of what you’re not.”

“Whoever I am.” Taryn took a breath—had there been a choice, back during her childhood, that could have shot her off on a trajectory like Anwen’s? Winter Harbour was like a parallel world where she could see the life she’d have led, if only . . . “How about we see if we can get kicked out of the Temple for our next trick?”

“They’d say everyone is welcome in the house of Ilmatar,” Quincunx said. “But I’m sure you could convince them to make an exception.”

The Temple was the tallest building in Winter Harbour, two stories tall and painted cloud-white. An inscription was carved over the door, recalling childhood memories of elven culture classes during summers at Camp Vidblain, but no matter how much she stared the characters resolved into nothing meaningful.

“It says ‘all are welcome within these walls,’” Quincunx said. “Finnish. Ilmatar’s language.”

“Then they can’t rightly keep us from looking around, can they?” Taryn took a deep breath and stepped inside. The air within was cool and rich with the scent of pine. Most of the temple was a single, open room, with rows of pews that could seat everyone in Winter Harbour and then some, with an altar at the far wall. There was a small sconce in front of it where four people in white robes stood around the burning flame in quiet contemplation. One of them, a bright-eyed woman just shorter than Taryn, took notice and came with arms open.

“I see Anwen wasn’t exaggerating,” said the woman. She was an elf, but not by birth—her ears bore telltale marks of surgical alteration. “I’m Nia, and may Ilmatar’s blessings be upon you. If you’re looking for Anwen, she’s seeing to Their Highnesses’ spiritual health. I’m sure I can help with anything you might need.”

“Just the key to the meditation room,” Quincunx said.

“Did you lose the part of you that remembers you need to make appointments, Quink?” Nia’s eyes went dull as granite. “The tanks are down for maintenance. I told you last week.”

“Good, because we’re here to investigate,” Taryn said. “So unless that motto over your door is just a suggestion, the key, please.”

“By all means,” Nia said, her voice like gravel. “This way, then.”

The meditation room was hidden behind an ordinary wooden door on the far side of the temple, next to the washrooms and a cleaning supply closet. There were five smooth metal-and-plastic pods inside, their compartments yawning open in various states of disassembly. They were the most unapologetically modern things Taryn had seen all day.

“I can’t imagine what you expect to find here,” Nia said, “but I’m sure you have your reasons, just as Ilmatar has her reasons for whatever insensibilities we each find in our stories. I’ll be tending the fire if you need me, Agent Liang.”

Taryn waited until Nia shut the door behind her, then let out a long breath.

“I see her point,” Quincunx said. “What do you expect to find?”

“I don’t expect anything,” Taryn said. She ran her hand over the smooth skin of the closest pods. “But if someone’s after you, they might try a new tack next time. Nice equipment. Yours outright?”

“Essentially,” Quincunx said. “Anyone can use them if they want to, but people tend to lose themselves when there’s nothing to push against. At least I can talk to myself.”

Taryn waved her multitool over the pods, their exposed workings, everything from the floor to the door—but Nia’s comment still gnawed at her. Had she been flown in so that some stranger who wore their high priestess’ face could look for the answer and fail?

“The atmosphere back there wasn’t exactly clear as air,” Taryn said, if only to silence her worries. “Is that normal?”

“They’re uneasy around me,” Quincunx said. “I hardly blame them, honestly.”

“You’re just diplomatic because you live here,” Taryn said. Aside from the pods and their support equipment, her multitool hadn’t found anything in the room that couldn’t have been made in 1900. “If they can’t work past their uneasiness, that’s their problem, not yours. You haven’t experienced anything unusual with your meditation recently, have you? Like someone was unwrapping your brain?”

“Now that you mention it, I—”

Taryn’s hand was halfway to her stunner before she realized she’d only heard the door creak open. Nia came through with her head bowed, carrying a small box like a supplicant’s offering.

“I should have mentioned this before,” Nia said. “I wasn’t sure if it would matter, but . . . I asked Ilmatar and she told me to show you.”

“Show me what?”

“Anwen thought she hid this well,” Nia said. “Whatever it is, it’s something she didn’t want anyone else to know about. I saw her putting it away the day of the attack. Considering what happened, I . . . I didn’t think it should be hidden from you.”

“If you’re so concerned,” Quincunx said, “why haven’t you already opened it?”

“It’s genelocked to Anwen,” Nia said. “You’re her far-sister, Agent Liang. I know your DNA is the same as hers. You might be able to see what’s inside.”

Taryn sucked in a breath. Beyond an awkward drink in Vancouver the year before and last night’s hospitality, she didn’t know Anwen from Eve. The box was just big enough that a stealth suit, expertly folded, might fit inside.

“Thank you, Nia,” Taryn said. “I’ll look into it.”

“May Ilmatar speak well of you,” Nia said. She bowed, then in a flurry of robes she was gone. Quincunx looked at the box and clicked their tongue.

“She’s nervous,” Quincunx said.

“She’s an opportunistic thief,” Taryn said. “I’ll bet there’s something in here that’s been burning her up for a while, and she’s just using me to find out what.”

“So you’re not going to open it, then?” Quincunx cocked their head.

“I never said that,” Taryn said. “I’m a bit of an asshole, and I kinda want to find out myself.”

She pressed her thumb against the keypad and the box’s latches clicked free. There was no stealth suit inside, nor memory cards weighed down with petabytes of Latvian lesbian microgravity porn. There was a pistol, snug in its foam casing, smooth and well-cared for.

“Huh,” Taryn said.

“That kusipää,” Anwen hissed after she’d hidden the case away. “She’s always had her eye on my spot. She probably hoped there was something embarrassing in there. Don’t tell me you think I’m caught up in this because of her.”

“Not really, no,” Taryn said. “Whoever attacked Quincunx wouldn’t have used a rock if they had a gun. I’m not that dumb, so neither are you.”

They’d been waiting for her at the door when Anwen returned from her spirituals. As high priestess, she rated an office with far more light and air than the space Taryn struggled with in the city, but Anwen had decorated almost every square centimeter of the walls with hanging scrolls, sugary inspirational messages, and paintings of clouds.

“I guess not.” Anwen rested her head on her desk and let out a long sigh. “It’s my weakness. I just couldn’t take it.”

“No one here thinks you’re weak,” Quincunx said.

“I’m weak,” Anwen repeated, punctuating her words with her fist against the wood. “You’ve got to understand, Taryn, the King and Queen aren’t huge fans of modernity. That’s why the place looks like it was scooped out of a fantasy world. Sometimes it just gets too much, so I go out to town and do some target shooting. It’s cathartic. They don’t care, as long as I’m circumspect, but the fact that I have to do it at all . . . I’m worried I don’t really care about what we’re trying to do here.”

“If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t care,” Taryn said.

“Don’t bullshit me, sis,” Anwen said.

“Fine,” Taryn said. “Whoever attacked Quincunx was wearing a stealth suit. Where around here could they have got one?”

“Easy, they just press a few buttons and a drone shows up with one in thirty minutes or your money back,” Anwen said. “Ilmatar’s name, they hold those things tighter than an accountant’s anus. Mitch might know, though.”

“Doesn’t sound like someone in Winter Harbour.”

“No, Mitch Lam in Port Hardy,” Anwen said. “He owns the gun store out there. If a stealth suit made its way here, it could’ve gone through him. But he’s got a good heart, I can’t believe he’d be involved in what happened to Quincunx.”

“Sounds like he’s worth checking out,” Taryn said.

“He’d never talk to you,” Anwen said. “But . . . yes! You could go instead. They don’t know I have all these farsisters—you could dye your hair, pretend to be me. It shouldn’t be hard, most of the people here act like you’re me, and they know better.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Taryn said after a moment’s vacant stare. “I don’t know you, Anwen Fairbreeze. Hell, I don’t even know what your original name is. You think that just because we look and sound alike, that I can be you just like that? That I don’t have any identity aside from ‘version of Anwen who isn’t high on Ilmatar?’ Who the hell do you think you are?”

“Wow.” Anwen’s face softened and the light went out of her eyes. “I guess I really don’t understand you at all, Agent Liang.” She said her name as if it was a curse.

“First step on the road,” Taryn said. “So let’s go. Unless you’re comfortable with the idea of someone running around in a stealth suit bashing skulls open.”

“Well then,” Anwen said with a wan smile, “at least this way I can be sure you won’t leave me an unpleasant surprise.”

Twin turrets tracked Taryn the second she came through the door. Instead of guns they mounted plastic fingers that pointed at her accusingly, but their meaning was clear. The air inside Mitch Lam’s store was heavy with the mint-and-gasoline smell of gun cleaner mixed with cigarette smoke and the distant peppery tang of gunpowder. The man himself was sitting on a chair with a disassembled gun laid out on a workbench front of him. He was the dwarf to Anwen’s elf, compact and squat but clean-shaven, and not trying to convince anyone that he was anything but a baseline human.

“Hey, Annie, good to see you again!” Lam waved from his chair. “You came at just the right time. Heard about that new caseless—”

He trailed off as Anwen entered with Quincunx. She’d exchanged her robes for street clothes in Winter Harbour, and if not for their hair even their respective parents would have needed a moment to tell them apart. A tool fell out of his hands and clattered to the floor.

“Holy hell, Annie,” Lam said. “God damn. You never told me you were twins.”

“It was never that important, eagle-eye,” Anwen said. “This is Taryn. She’s come in from the city with a couple of questions.”

“Couple of questions from a couple of beautiful women,” Lam said. Taryn shut her eyes so no one would see them rolling. “I’d be happy to. What can Mitch the Glitch do for you?”

“I’m looking for a stealth suit. Seen any recently?”

“Hey, whoa, what’s this all about, Annie?” Lam raised one hand and put another over his heart. “Coming in with the queen of harsh entrances here. You’re not turning around on me, are you?”

“Sorry, Mitch, Taryn’s a bit direct,” Anwen said, giving Taryn a quick frown. “There’s some trouble at the end of the road, we think someone might’ve found a way into a stealth suit to raise some unpleasantness. The blessings of Ilmatar go on those who help her agents, you know.”

“Look around, Annie, I’m blessed enough,” Lam said. He bent to retrieve his dropped tool and reappeared with a thoughtful expression. “There might be something, you know . . . but this is a two-way street. Something for something, you know what I mean?”

“Are you asking for a bribe?” Taryn narrowed her eyes. “Who the hell do you think I am?”

“Wow, hold on, nothing like that, sister! Be calm like Annie, you’ll be better off for it.” Lam hopped off his stool and stood toe-to-toe with Taryn, even if he was a head shorter. “You want information, that’s great. You being here means I can get some information that I never knew I wanted. Couldn’t help but notice that zapper of yours—you good with guns at all, Terry?”

“My name is Taryn,” she said with narrowed eyes. “And I get by.”

“Great! I’ve been getting Annie to learn for a while now,” Lam said. “Here’s what I figure. The two of you, you go in back and shoot a few rounds and we can all see which one of you’s a better hand with a gun. Gives me time to go through my records and see if I know anything about any suit.”

“Mitch,” Anwen said, “I really don’t think that’s—”

“It’s great,” Taryn said. “Just great. Isn’t it, Annie?”

Anwen gave Taryn the same dirty look that Taryn herself reserved for door-to-door enlighteners and crusading politicians. Taryn sent a message to Quincunx, quietly meditating in the car, to come in and keep an eye on whatever Mitch did once the two of them were wearing ear protection.

“All right,” Anwen said. “Fine.”

“You do this, Annie, I just might come down and see what this goddess you’re always on about is all about,” Mitch said. “Come on, I’ll take you through the basics.”

Mitch’s range was in its own outbuilding, from appearances made entirely of old aluminum siding and duct tape with a few soggy wooden crossbeams thrown in for aesthetics. Taryn inspected the gun that Mitch had left out for her—a silvery pistol, blocky and raw, for which muscles that had memorized recoilless stunners would be little help.

“I think I can figure this out quick enough,” Taryn said. “Do you want me to go easy on you, though?”

“I don’t need your charity,” Anwen said. “Ilmatar will tell my story how it needs to be told.”

“Ready to go, ladies?” Mitch’s voice crackled out of age-worn speakers while a phalanx of cameras peered down the gallery to where the targets would appear. “Best out of ten shots . . . and go!”

They went. Bullets tore into the paper targets. Breathe, aim, fire, breathe, aim, fire—it was almost calming. Anwen had blasted through her allotment before Taryn was halfway done, pouring forth like a dragon with a nose full of pepper.

“It’s not a race, you know,” Taryn said once the shooting was over. While Taryn’s shots—the ones that found the mark, at least—were roughly grouped around the center of mass, it looked like Anwen had tried to draw a new constellation.

“You think you’re so incredible, don’t you?” Anwen hissed. “This is my life, not yours. Don’t act like you can be a better me than me.”

“That’s rich,” Taryn said. “You think I’d ever want to be you? Telling stories about your goddess so you don’t have to pay attention to the world?”

“Ilmatar’s name, I never thought I could be so arrogant, but here you are,” Anwen said. “Don’t pretend that you understand me!”

“All right . . . all right,” Taryn said, taking a step back. She recognized that twitch in Anwen’s eye and the way her ears narrowed to knife-points. “You’re right. I don’t understand you.”

“I won’t let you humiliate me!” Anwen swung at her, her untrained fist coming slow but without mercy. “I won’t let you take my life! I won’t!”

“I don’t want it!” Taryn dodged Anwen’s strike and took her in a restraining hold. She struggled against Taryn’s grip but couldn’t break it. “Just because we share so much doesn’t mean I want what’s yours. I have my own life. I’m happy with it. You have yours. The only life we should be worrying about is Quincunx’s. Okay?”

“I . . .” Anwen let herself fall to the floor and folded up on herself. “I’m sorry. I just had plenty of time to think on the way here. I thought about how easily you could make yourself into me. It’s scary.”

“Identity is scary when you really think about it,” Taryn said. She offered Anwen a hand. “Who are we, really? Any of us?”

“Who are you?” Anwen peered at Taryn’s open palm, as if trying to read her own future in its lines and grooves, before grasping it.

“I think I’ll always be trying to figure that out.” Taryn pulled Anwen onto her feet. “We all will. That’s our curse.”

“Ahem. This has all been touching as hell,” Mitch said over the speakers, “but save it, ladies. I’ve got what you’re looking for.”

Back in the main room, where Quincunx was wandering the displays and peering at self-defense tools, Lam was beaming like he’d found President Dhillon when he showed them his screen. It took a moment of peering at his records for Taryn to realize that he barely had the first clue how to keep records.

“Ilmatar’s name, what a mess.” Anwen said. “What are we looking at?”

“Security through obscurity,” Lam said. “Wanna know what you’re not looking at?”

“Next year’s Proxima Award winner?”

“Any record of a stealth suit,” Lam said. “I told you, those monsters are sharp jobs. If you’ve got one, it didn’t come through me.”

“But it doesn’t make sense otherwise.” Taryn spoke into Anwen’s ear, so sharp, so fine. “The attacker would’ve left some mark, some clue to their presence. I would’ve found it by now.”

“Maybe your tool isn’t as—”

“Pardon the interruption,” Quincunx said, rushing up, “but I just got off the phone with myself. You need to get back to town, Anwen. They need you.”

“Ilmatar’s name, not something new,” Anwen said. “What’s happened?”

“There’s been an accident.”

The fire equipment had beaten them there, for all the good it had done. Winter Harbour was wreathed in smoke when the car whispered past the empty guardhouse, and Anwen was out the door and dashing away before it had stopped rolling. They’d seen the plume of smoke rising above the treetops—though Anwen had only snatched glances now and then, when she hadn’t been keeping her eyes shut and her prayers constant.

“This might be the end, you know,” Quincunx said. “It’s a huge part of what holds the community together. If enough people drift away . . .”

“If,” Taryn said. “This might be a coincidence, too. But I doubt it.”

The Temple of Ilmatar was a feast for the hungry flames, and after nearly an hour nothing recognizable remained. The ground was littered with blackened splinters, twists of scorched metal, and piles of ash that the wind was loath to scatter. Spidery firebots clambered over the wreckage spraying extinguisher foam as if there was anything left worth saving, while most of the community had gathered at a safe distance to watch, to kneel, and to seek understanding. A circle of white-robed priestesses and priests stood chanting in Finnish with arms upraised, and Anwen had fallen to her knees in the wreckage of the church she had built.

“It’s fine, you know,” Anwen said in a distracted, sing-song tone. “It’s all fine. Air and fire are just reflections of each other, fire couldn’t exist without air, so it’s all just gone back to our lady of the air. All fine. All fine!”

“Anwen,” Taryn said, sinking to the ground in sympathy. “You can get past this. I’ve been through bad times, and I know you have that strength too. Come on.”

“I’m not you!” Anwen stood up and said a quick prayer. “But now we can go. This place is at peace. Let’s figure out why.”

They assembled in Quincunx’s house, a long, low aluminum box that blended as poorly with the rest of Winter Harbour as Quincunx themselves did. All the bodies she’d met were there. Boom sat at the table stroking a small grey cat, while the others stood stone-faced like archers on a castle wall who’d just seen the first enemy flags crest the horizon.

“The fire department believes it was intentional,” Anwen said. “So where do we go from here?”

“Where we’ve always been going,” Quincunx said. “I don’t mean to diminish your experience, Anwen, but I believe this was targeted at me. Two of my bodies would have been in the middle of meditation right now if the tanks weren’t on the mend.”

“You think they wanted to send a message?”

“That nowhere is safe,” Quincunx said. “Such a coarse manner, though.”

“Reckless,” Taryn said. “Doesn’t square with someone who’d go to the trouble of sneaking a stealth suit here.”

“The only difference between now and then is that you’re here,” Anwen said, nodding to Taryn. “Maybe they think you’re getting too close.”

“Maybe,” Taryn said. “Quincunx, you’re five bodies, but I’ve only ever met four. Where’s your fifth?”

“My bodies all have their preferences,” Quincunx said. “Like you having a dominant hand, sort of. Sweet likes to spend time working on the greenery, but that body’s never missed a sync.”

Taryn put her hands to her head as the possibilities clicked together like puzzle pieces with the picture worn off. There was so much that hadn’t made sense—but how many things did make sense when seen through a kaleidoscope instead of binoculars?

“Quincunx,” Taryn said in as calm a voice as she could manage, “when you sync, do you sync everything?”

“Of course not,” Quincunx said. “Being a linked is hard enough without reconciling five bodies’ worth of emotional baggage. There are filters.”

“Can individual bodies control them, consciously?”

“There’s no reason why they—” Quincunx stopped. The two bodies by the window turned to face her, eyes widening. “No. You’re not considering that.”

“I am.” Taryn took her stunner out of its holster and set it on the table. “Anwen, make sure nobody leaves town. We need to talk to Sweet.”

Taryn led them back the way she’d come, back toward to the dock where Winter Harbour began and the labyrinth of hedges where many false paths hid the way forward. The man she’d seen tending to it was there, trimming off interruptions to its fine green geometries, and when he noticed her his expression was one of relief.

“Finally,” he said.

“Sweet, of Quincunx?”

“Right, I’m Sweet,” he said, now wearing a wide smile. Quincunx’s other three bodies gave each other uncertain looks. “What’s with the sour faces?”

“I’d like to ask you some questions,” Taryn said. “About what you’ve been—”

The shouts came simultaneously from Quincunx’s three familiar bodies, bewilderment and pain and anger. Only Sweet was unaffected, still beaming like a ray of light.

“Whatever you’re doing, stop.” Taryn had her stunner in hand now and let its warmth charge her own quiet fury. “Scissors on the ground, please.”

“I’d rather not, Agent Liang,” Sweet said. Quincunx was on their knees, groaning with agony. “But it’s too bad, you know. Prickle really was a wizard at the drums.”

His motion was smooth but untrained. A gun flew from nowhere and barked once, twice, before the ground punched Taryn in her stomach. She registered a cry of pain echoing out of some other world, and then everything was silent between the grass and the sky until her stunner fired. The laser carved a path out of Anwen’s sacred air, then a crack of unchained lightning crashed through that tunnel of nothing.

He’d missed his shots, but so had she. What kind of worthless idiot missed with a laser?

“Nia will be with me,” Sweet said. “You should never have come here. It would’ve been better for every—OOF!

Sweet had forgotten about the rest of the world. Anwen reminded him of it when she tackled him to the hard earth.

“Speak for yourself,” Anwen said. “Check what this mulkku’s doing to Quincunx.”

Taryn fumbled for her multitool and set it to jam Sweet’s electronic links with the outside world. After a moment, Quincunx opened their eyes, rubbed their heads, and helped themselves stand on uncertain legs.

“Thank you,” Quincunx said. All three bodies looked at Sweet as if he was the wrecked and bloodied bird the cat had left as an offering. “I don’t know if I want to believe this.”

“You’re like mirrors yourselves,” Taryn said. “Different souls, after all.”

“Oxbow lake.”

Taryn stood with Quincunx’s three remaining bodies where the dock met the ground, waiting for the floatplane to appear.

“Pardon?” Quincunx asked, squinting at the calm water. “If anything, it’s closer to a fjord.”

“I meant you,” Taryn said. “A river changes course and a bit of the old meander gets cut off. Left to develop on its own.”

“Sweet shouldn’t have been able to do what he did,” Quincunx said. “I should have seen it coming, you know, but he was just so compatible with the link—there’s no such thing as a perfect match. I thought it would be enough.”

“Enough is never enough for some,” Taryn said. Her watch buzzed softly, and there in the distant blue, light glinted off an aluminum eagle. “I have an answer for you.”

“Certainly leaving it to the last minute,” Quincunx said. “What did you decide?”

“That I don’t know,” Taryn said. “Face it, this is a question that would tie the Supreme Court in knots. Assault? Murder? Hell, suicide? I can’t understand what it means to be linked, Quincunx. It up to you.”

“I understand,” Quincunx said. “Then let me wish you a safe journey, until we meet again.”

She pressed her right palm together with Quincunx’s in turn. Then they left her alone on the rocky shore, watching the plane come in, until she felt a familiar warmth on her shoulder.

“I’m sorry you couldn’t have been here for good reasons,” Anwen said. “We’re each other’s roads not taken. I’d like to understand that more, someday.”

“There are forty-nine of us,” Taryn said with a smile—the truth she’d lived with for twenty-six years, and it still felt unreal. Taryns and Anwens all over the world, living their own lives, guided and manacled by their natures. “Maybe one day we’ll have a convention.”

“We’d absolutely need name badges,” Anwen said with a laugh. “And hairstyles all our own.”

“I don’t know how you stand it covering up your ears,” Taryn said. “Be proud of yourself.”

“I am,” Anwen said. “Their Highnesses are already putting together plans for a new temple. Something that’ll be even more inspiring than the last. It’ll be something to see!”

“I’m sure it will be.” Nearby, the waters churned and roared, and the floatplane’s propeller powered down from flight as it bore toward the dock. “Ilmatar wouldn’t let you down.”

“The story will go on,” Anwen said. “Fair travels, in her name.”

“I hope so,” Taryn said. “For what it’s worth.”

• • •