They say you can’t go home again but I say: ‘what do they know?’
A few weeks ago, the other Perplex City writers and I got to talking about how much we’d enjoyed working together, and started wondering about what our characters might be up to now. So, this is very unofficial, but we put together some fan fiction for a Restitution of the Cube Day treat. And we love you all 🙂
They say you can’t go home again but I say: ‘what do they know?’
some words from Violet Kiteway
[This comes to you courtesy of Scarlett‘s beau Rory, bless his rather-conventional-for-my-taste-but-just-right-for-her cotton socks. Kurt has made some kind of puzzle for you too.]
First, I went to Alchemy. Not the beach. The, you know, rest centre for “exhausted” celebrities. It was my father’s idea and at first I tried to say no, but then I thought about it and said yes. Fine, yes. Alright then, yes. I’ve seen all sorts of things, consorted with some terrible people, but it was Babel and the intimations of some incipient insanity that finally convinced me that, yes, a stay in a quiet, pleasant treatment facility was just what I needed.
It was better than I expected, actually. I thought there’d be screaming, crying, weird people wandering the halls. But they must have put me in the “still pretty sane really” building. It was like a nice hotel – and I’ve always loved a nice hotel – old-fashioned claw-foot bath, the latest key-enabled vid-screens, courteous room service, and a deep comfortable bed. I arrived on the evening train north from the City, they brought me boiled eggs with toast fingers just like my mother used to make when I was a child, and then I fell asleep for 17 hours. Been a while since I’d done that.
I think I just needed to rest, really. That’s what they told me anyway. I took long walks along the coastal paths around Alchemy, and they talked to me about what I’d seen and what I’d done, and they took various scans of my head and made non-commital noises about the possible effects of cross-dimensional travel. And they didn’t change me, that’s the funny thing. It’s not that I’m different now. Just more me again, less feeling that I’m pretending to be myself.
The company wasn’t bad either. Met a few burnt out executives, a couple of drop-outs from the PCAG, and one senior academician who must remain nameless. And, well, let’s just say that in my key’s contacts list, I have a certain entertainer who might have fathered a certain child with a certain… oh bugger beating around the bush, his photos were in all the papers anyway, I hung out with Alejo Jackson, OK? He’s more handsome in person. And he gives good hugs. Oh yeah, that’s what I said.
I was there for three months. They had me think about the future. For so long, the future was terrifying. Either I’d be found out, and I’d die and other people would die too, or I wouldn’t, and it’d just be the other people. They said to me “you have a lot of guilt about these deaths, particularly for someone who didn’t kill anyone”. I said “I used to date a murderer. Maybe I got his share.” But they said “just think about it. What do you want to do now? What do you want?” And it seemed like a million years since I’d thought about that. But I did, and the answer came out of the air.
So I left Alchemy.
Our world is changing. We’re not just a city anymore, we can’t remain isolated as we have done. The Cube’s changed that for one thing. We still don’t know how it does what it does, but the fact that it can do it is proving very interesting to a group of very clever people at the Academy and elsewhere. You know that phenomenon, where for years something is thought impossible – like running a mile in under 4 minutes – and then one person proves it can be done and 10 years later everyone’s doing it? It’s like that. Once they accepted my story, once they knew it could be done, they’ve started to work out how to do it themselves. A few months ago, I hear, one of the boffins at Viendenbourg managed to transport a mouse onto a metre-square target 200 miles away. And you’d better believe if we’ve worked out how to do it, then the other people on this world will be figuring it out too.
So suddenly, peace isn’t just a word anymore, it’s a precious thing we want to protect. I stopped in to see Kurt one day at the Academy just to ruffle his hair and mess up his papers and see how much I could annoy him by criticising his taste in literature – really Kurt, I thought you hated Varkin? Garnet spotted me and came over and said in that voice which means “I’m trying to say this casually but it’s actually really important”, he said “so, we’re looking for diplomats.” And I said “diplomats?” And he said “diplomats.” And, well, I guess you don’t need to hear the whole conversation. It wasn’t like I hadn’t known they were looking.
You wouldn’t think I’m the most diplomatic person alive. You’d think they should send someone like, I don’t know, Tippy. She could solve puzzles for them slowly and sexily. But apparently there’s some test they can do to see how likely you are to freak out when confronted with a totally new culture and way of life and, well, I don’t freak out at all. Not one little bit. I’m sure you can understand why.
They needed people who could learn new languages, and were interested in exploring and retaining vast amounts of cultural knowledge. Like a librarian. And who could read other people and judge how to respond to them. Like a poker player. Turns out I was made for international diplomacy all these years, it’s just that we didn’t have any inter-nations for me to do it with.
So I left the City. As part of a team, obviously, of people with a lot more knowledge of the ins-and-outs of the business than me. Bound for an ambassadorial position in the Great City State and Equitable Government of Xia-Hifa. My dad clapped his hand on my shoulder and told me he was proud. I wrote to Lettie but she didn’t say anything. Me and Kurt had a farewell party the night before I left, just the two of us.
“You’ll miss me,” I said.
“I’ll think of some way to occupy my time,” he said, and I hugged him and I knew that he, of all of us, would be OK.
What can I tell you about Xia-Hifa? If you’d been able to read the Sentinel these past few years you’d have seen the vid-feeds and the wide-eyed travelogues from those with enough time and courage to make the three-week overland journey (it’s faster if you get the diplomatic shuttles, but those aren’t open to just anyone). You’d have spotted the sudden explosion in Xia-Hifan restaurants (but they never get the yellow-mould and seabug pate just right), and the complaints about their tourists turning up in *our* beloved city, jacking up the prices on everything and insisting on speaking Perplexian with that weird accent. Oh, and by the way, we shouldn’t be pronouncing it Xia-Hifa, it’s Xuo-H-yoo-fe with the slight coughing sound called the Kuh at the start. Take it from one who took the lessons, studied the material, and hawked up the phlegm getting those sounds right.
It’s a pretty amazing place. Kurt, who was the only person who I think actually read my weekly reports to friends, ex-lovers, and other co-conspirators, was particularly excited by the “equitable government”, which is essentially government by jury service, with a certain amount of intra-group jockeying for position thrown in. If you live in XH, you’re basically constantly on civic duty of some sort – whether it’s serving on your street’s snow-clearing and smartening-up collective or, if your number comes up, taking a place in government. It makes them think differently about everything; it took us months to work out that no one was coming to the Embassy parties because we hadn’t chosen a representative for the local parks preservation committee. It means that their public spaces are breathtaking – gorgeous architecture chosen to make people happy, vast art projects, wide streets and gardens everywhere. Having said that, their fashion sense is appalling. There’s a double-hood-and-mask thing going on now which… no, I can’t even talk about it.
There was so much work to be done. After centuries of being so wide-apart and so separate that we might as well have been on different planets, suddenly the different city-states of our world are coming into contact. And we really do have to make sure we understand each other so as to prevent, well, you know, the thing that happened before. It’s not just teleportation – for some reason the XH-ers have suddenly started investigating powered flight. You know, like those paper aeroplanes Kurt used to make for the competitions back in Perplex City. Except bigger, obviously. And not made of paper. Seeing the schematics for the XH powered gliders made me so nostalgic somehow, and I asked Kurt to send me a paper aeroplane, but he said he’d given up making them, and wouldn’t make one specially for me no matter how much I bothered him. I don’t know why telling people that something would make me really really happy rarely seems to motivate them to do it.
But after a while, I felt like I’d been there forever. Like the City and its people were fading further and further away. I had an important job. I even had a secretary and an office and a to-do list like regular people. And for a while I loved it: the discovery, the challenge, the new things all around me. I found a new boyfriend, Hiust. He was one of the guys who was working as liaison between the Embassy and the constantly rotating and evolving government. For a while it was torrid and exciting and a bit trangressive. We wondered if we were the first Perplexian-Xia-Hifan couple ever; although probably not, so much history has been lost. And then it was easy and comfortable and familiar. And then one day he was gone, because that’s how these things seem to go. And I was sitting in my apartment one rainy Thanksday, thinking, as I so often seem to think, “is that all there is?”
There was a knock at the door. A messenger, special delivery, wearing one of those huge green and pink pendants they wear in XH without any apparent understanding of the basic principles of colour-matching.
“Who’s it from?”
Ah. A flash, suddenly, of deja vu.
I opened the envelope. It was a ticket, on the fastest land-shuttle heading out the next day. And a note. A printed, unsigned note.
“Someone wants to see you, Violet. Come home.”
And it seemed like the right thing to do. So I did.
I’d been away for almost three years. My apartment was much as I’d left it. Good old diplomatic department had apparently even had it cleaned before I arrived back. But it didn’t really seem like home anymore. The view seemed… smaller, after XH. The Strip’s not so impressive once you’ve seen the light show on a Middleday at the Ring of Flame.
I called Garnet.
“You wanted to see me?”
“No?” he said. Although it was a pleasure to hear from me obviously and my request for a leave of absence had been granted and well deserved after three years in the field.
Ah, I thought. Yes, I think I knew that already. I think I’d been waiting for a long time for this to happen. Happen again.
Nonetheless, I did the rounds. Because I was probably wrong after all and maybe my secretary had just been really super-efficient back-covery with that leave of absence thing.
I went to see my dad. He’s the same as ever. A bit more grizzled, a bit more belligerent, a bit more inclined to mutter about the Earlywine family under his breath although I know he loves Rory more than he’d ever tell Lettie. He’s got some huge row brewing with the council about some technical issue around control of the Cube research, and tried to tell me about it but I got lost halfway through and found myself making “mmm-hmm, aha” noises instead of actually listening.
Eventually, I said: “Dad, did you send me a ticket to come home?”
And he said: “I did not. I’d never interfere in your life Violet. You or your sister’s. You’re both grown women now, your mother would have wanted you to make your own choices.”
And he poured me another whiskey and we silently toasted my mother. And it was comfortable, and familiar, but also not my home any longer. I started to think maybe I’d spent too long in so many different places I didn’t have a home any more at all.
I even went to see Caine. I’d realised there was something I needed to say, something that had got lost in all the murder and torture and betrayal, something much simpler than that.
He sat behind the reinforced glass. I turned on the comms channel.
His eyes were just the same as ever, like he could look right through your head and was faintly amused by what he saw there.
“You broke my heart,” I said.
“I know,” he said.
And that was all there was.
But I guess I was glad I’d said it anyway.
As I left, one of the guards passed me a note he’d given them for me. It’s here.
I don’t know what went wrong with Caine, and it sounds like he doesn’t know either. I don’t think he’s black all through, but I know I can’t help. Maybe he’ll be in that dark place forever. Maybe he’ll find a way out. Maybe I should stop wondering about it. Or, you know, maybe it’s just that psychopaths turn out to be really clever and charming right up until they rip your heart out. Who knows?
I saw Scarlett. I hadn’t imagined I would, thought she’d be angry with me for the next thousand years and I’d never manage to say anything or do anything to change that. But one of my olive branches reached her – or, to be honest, it’s that she’s a better person than I am, and can forgive more easily than me. Even that. Even me. And she’s happy, probably happier than I’ll ever deserve to be, and that’s just right too. But I didn’t even need to ask her if she’d sent me a ticket home, because I knew from her face that she hadn’t known she’d be ready to see me until the moment she did.
And at last, I went to see Kurt. I don’t know why I’d been putting it off, really, nothing much had changed. The painting I’d sent him was on the wall of his office, although there was no damn paper aeroplane for me, would it have been so very much to ask? But there he was sitting at his desk with the same mountain of paperwork, and the same sweet woeful put-upon expression he’s made every day for as long as I’ve known him which has, of course, been forever and ever.
He hugged me, and I said, “I missed you”.
He said “we talked practically every day, Violet.”
“How’s your mass-murdering ex?”
“Still crazy. How’s yours?”
And we went out for dinner.
We went to the new hot place, Triple-Square, where they did a knock-off of X-H-ian tretretretre stew so bad it made my eyes water, but it was all fine because Joya and Alejo were three tables over and I even got a little wave when I sat down. Although RFD’s new album, ‘Character Development’ is out, and they’re trying to hide little Allegra from the cameras as much as possible, so I didn’t go over. I can still cause a bit of a scene in this city. And after dinner we wandered through the Academy, and up to the Cube museum even though we’ve been there a hundred times before it still always seems to be the place we wind up. Bathed in the warm yellow light they illuminate it with at night, staring at the thing, waiting to see if it’ll talk to me. Talk to me again.
I said: “Kurt. You read all the cube research, don’t you?”
“And you actually understand most of it, which is more than I can say.”
“But am I right in thinking that, even after all the work they’ve done, they’re still saying that it can’t be sentient, not sentient like it seemed to be to me?”
“Kurt, I know what they’re saying. That all the things that happened to me on Earth were probably just things I did myself, in some kind of fugue state. That I ordered tickets for myself, and imagined the phone ringing and all of that. I know they’re saying that, because they say the cube can’t possibly have done it itself.”
Kurt nodded, slowly.
“But you don’t think I’m crazy, right?”
He looked at me. A careful, thoughtful, considered look.
“No,” he said at last, “I don’t think you’re crazy.”
“You’ve worked it out too, haven’t you?”
“Worked what out?”
“If the Cube can’t be sentient, and I’m not crazy… someone else must have been controlling it. Using it to move things and create things while I was on Earth. Someone who knew about it, who’d read the research, who maybe even had access to some of the old papers about how it was made. Those lost papers.”
Kurt smiled, a defeated smile. He put his hand over mine.
“It’s just a theory, Vi.”
I looked at him.
“They never found my mother’s body, you know. Could never even say what caused her auto-drive car to run off the road. Some high-energy discharge was all they knew.”
He licked his lips.
“We can’t know anything, Vi. No one knows anything about anything. We can’t get back to Earth, and we can’t even communicate with them. Just…”
“You know I can’t forget it.”
“We’ll just have to wait. And maybe one day we’ll find out. That’s all there is.”
And there was a long pause. His hand was still on mine, I noticed.
“You didn’t send me a ticket, did you?”
He shook his head.
“But I wish I had,” he said.
And he leaned over, and kissed me. Kurt, who has known me longest and best of all. And at last it felt like coming home.