There were a lot of salient facts about Aerb, but the one that I kept coming back to was that it was really heckin’ big. What was more, it was big in a lot of ways that Earth wasn’t.
I had never really been a huge fan of open world games like Skyrim and Assassin’s Creed, but I’d played one or two of them, mostly because I’d been a believer in making sure that I had a good sampling of every genre. One of the things that I’d noticed was that they all had way too much stuff in them, all of it packed too closely together. Some of that was surely because of resource constraints, the fact that even if you were cloning things over and reusing assets, you would eventually run into space limits, or if you tried to spread things out, you’d be wasting the labor of your artists and programmers on the stuff that wasn’t fun. But most of why they clumped so much together was ‘fun’; it probably wouldn’t be that hard to generate vast expanses of featureless land, bereft of anything interesting, but what would that really add? Verisimilitude and a sense of size, mostly. People who played those games didn’t want that though, they wanted a jaw-dropping vista at every turn, they wanted to be able to randomly stumble across cool things rather than trudging through thirty farms in a row that were broken up by small towns that were virtual clones of each other.
Aerb was like that, in a way. It had its fair share of sameness, but there were what seemed to be too many points of interest to me, too many things that were new and interesting. On Earth, you could dress up Vancouver so that it was almost any city in the world, but on Aerb … well, entad architecture was a part of it, and the athenaeums were definitely exceptional, but there seemed to me to be more history, more variability, so many different species, so much that was exceptional, because the base rules just weren’t the same.
The Athenaeum of Claw & Clocks seemed like one of those places that probably had a couple of hundred different quest lines running through it, and that was the impression just from looking at it, before you heard its long and impressive history (though it was much diminished in the modern age thanks to exclusions). Each of the buildings seemed like the kind of grand place that you would find an NPC waiting with a little exclamation mark above his head. The melange of cultures and peoples meant that there were a thousand points of conflict, hidden tensions and ways of mixing things up that made it all seem so expansive and never-ending.
I had wanted somewhere casual for the meetup, like a coffee shop or a teahouse, or whatever kind of place they had, but Grak had pointed out that this was a rather stupid idea that just wasn’t possible for someone of my stature, nor wise given the sensitive nature of the things that we would likely be discussing.
We had instead procured a room at Claw & Clocks that was normally used for therapy sessions, though Grak spent enough time and concordance on the wards that I was pretty sure it would have been about as efficient to use any other room anywhere else in the city. The room was one of those bland kinds of places with inoffensive artwork, which I guess suited its intended use. Compared to the city around us, it was a little bit grating. We could have been having a light lunch while watching a parade of strange peoples going by, but instead, we would be somewhere generic.
Tiff was a little bit late, so I spent a lot of my time just sitting there, wringing my hands and thinking about how I would approach things, gaming out the conversation to come. None of it mattered, not in the grand scheme of things. Nothing hinged on what we might say to each other, there were no revelations waiting in the wings, fuck it, she wasn’t even really the Tiff I had known back on Earth.
She came into the room with her head slightly down, closing the door behind her. When she saw me, she stopped, as though she was surprised to see me, but maybe she was just surprised by what I looked like, or what I was wearing. I’d thought about dressing like I had in high school, either in Earth clothes or as close to what I wore on Aerb, but there had been too much of a physical change to pretend, and my guess was that it might have a bit of an uncanny effect.
She sat down on the couch opposite me and smoothed down her skirt. She was simply dressed, just a t-shirt, skirt, and a bag that was just a bit too unigendered for me to call it a purse. She didn’t look much different from how I’d remembered, nor too different from how Bethel had displayed her, which was a little sickening to think about, because it meant that Arthur had spent time getting the illusion right.
“So,” she said. “Mr. Smith, I presume.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Only, not,” said Tiff. “Or not really.”
“Kind of,” I said. “I — I didn’t know the Juniper that you knew, but from what everyone has told me, we were … I don’t know, kind of close to one another. Proxies.”
“You never had trouble telling fantasy from reality,” said Tiff.
“No,” I said. I watched her for a moment. “Otherwise you might think that this was all a delusion of mine.”
She nodded. “Tell me what you remember of how things were between you and me.”
I hesitated, trying to think about what she was really asking about. “You gave me a ride home after a session,” I said. “My parents were being just … the worst, I guess, so we went to your place instead. Your parents had left you home alone, so it was kind of — there was an implicit invitation, and you said in very explicit terms that it wasn’t like that, so I told you that I had a huge crush on you. And then you said you felt the same way.” I watched her for a moment. “Did that night — did it happen for you the same way?”
“Do they have cars, on Earth?” she asked. “We did a group project on the dream skewered. Arthur thought it would be right up your alley, because you liked thinking up new worlds. It was a little frustrating how incomplete all the books were.”
“We have cars, yeah,” I said. “But they don’t run on souls, they run on something called gasoline, which is derived from a type of oil, which is created by the action of heat and pressure on the corpses of microscopic plants and animals over the course of millions of years.”
She crossed her legs. “That sounds made up.”
“It does, a bit,” I replied. “Sorry, I wasn’t trying to say it in the most ridiculous way that I could, that’s just how it came out. You probably didn’t need the long explanation. I could have just said that we have cars the same as you do, even if that’s only partially true. I’ve been nervous about seeing you.”
“Do you remember what we were talking about, that night?” asked Tiff.
“No,” I replied. “Or, I do, but saying what we were talking about — it wouldn’t make sense to you.”
“Tell me anyway?” she asked.
“Unicorns,” I said. “It was — Earth doesn’t have unicorns, except in fiction, so I’d put my own version of them into a game, which are, more or less, exactly how they are on Aerb. Why, what was it for you?”
“Penqans,” she said. “They’re a legendary and supposedly apocryphal creature. You made up your own version to put into the game.”
I frowned. “I’m not familiar, either with the old version or the new one.”
She shrugged. “It’s really not important.” She must have seen disappointment on my face, because she continued on. “Penqans are a legend from the Zorish Isles,” she said. “They’re a kind of forest sprite. As the legend goes, a girl who gets lost in the woods will be guided by the penqans, not to her home, but to a good match for a marriage bond. If they come across an adulteress though, they’ll bewitch her and lead her through the forest until she dies of thirst or starvation.”
“Huh,” I said. “I can see how you wouldn’t like that.”
“Can you?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
“And I suppose my version of them would have been more about leading people to destinies that they didn’t want,” I said. “Something about sacrifice for the greater good? Or rewarding people for falling into social roles?”
Tiff nodded. “It was a fun fight, as those things went. The less we acted like stereotypes, the better we did. As I recall, it took us a few hints to actually get it.” She smiled a little, a soft, sad smile. “I do miss it.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Yeah?” she asked. “Me too.”
“For what?” I asked.
“For abandoning you,” she replied, looking down. “At the time, it felt like I didn’t have a choice, like I was going to watch you self-destruct and get caught in the blast no matter what I did. It felt like I was going to suffer wounds. Scars, even. I cut and ran. I was a coward about it. I should have at least formally broken up with you, even if it was just in a letter.”
“Huh,” I said. “I guess I never thought you’d have regrets.”
“Not regrets, per se,” she replied. “If I could do it over again, I would probably do the same thing. But there were prices to be paid, harm inflicted on you, and it was shitty for you. This is that kind of apology. Not one where I say that I was wrong, one where I say that I was right.”
“Ah,” I replied.
“Now would be a good time for you to apologize too,” she said. “I wouldn’t put it that bluntly, but it’s painfully obvious that you’re wanting to spit something out.”
“Yeah,” I said. “No, you’re right, I was just … putting it off. Because I feel like if I have to put everything that I’m sorry for out there at once, it’s going to rightfully make me look like a shit.” I stopped for a moment to think. “Sorry, just trying to see if I can do this in chronological order so I’m not forgetting anything.”
“Take your time,” she said.
“Well,” I said, after having gotten everything in order. “Sorry for my part in keeping things secret, which made everything all the more difficult for everyone. Sorry for bogarting — for hogging all of the grief for myself, for not coming to the funeral, for not being a better boyfriend and lending you whatever support and comfort I could, for taking from you and everyone else in my life, for feeding these cycles of anger and depression, for not breaking up with you, for not talking about it with the others after the fact, for just letting things fester and poisoning even the mere memory of something good.” I hesitated. “Sorry for —” I had trouble getting it out. “Sorry for sleeping with Maddie.”
“Not really something that you need to apologize to me for,” she replied. “And personally, I don’t really think that it’s something that you should apologize to her for either.”
“No?” I asked.
“We talk, me and Maddie,” she replied. “I don’t think it left as big an impact on her as you might think. She’s resilient. You coming in — you as you are now, this giant of a man who people are saying might be a few years away from being king, heir to Uther, to have that guy come in and frame it as though it was — I mean, better for her to think that it was a fling, that you were trying to find comfort and it just didn’t work. Better for her to think that Juniper was wholesale replaced.”
“As opposed to,” I said, almost wanting to let her fill in the blank, just because it would hurt worse coming from her lips. “Victimization.”
“I guess I wouldn’t go that far,” said Tiff. “It definitely got a ‘yikes’ from me, but not much more than that. Compared to you getting sent to jail, then apparently killing someone, then being presumed dead in a trial by adversity … and Maddie feels about the same. She feels bad, like some of it was her fault.”
“Well, she shouldn’t,” I said.
“Duh,” replied Tiff.
I stopped for a moment and frowned. “Can I tell you about the true nature of the universe?” I asked.
“Sure,” she replied. “Unless it’s going to melt my brain or something.”
“Nah,” I said. “Nothing like that. It’s just not good opsec to do it, so it’s a bit of a burden on you in that way.”
“Well, then maybe don’t,” she replied. “But I am curious.”
“There’s an alternate Tiff on Earth,” I said. “She looks just like you, you know that. But I didn’t just come from a place with alternate versions of everyone in your Juniper’s life, which would be weird enough, the group that I came from, they created about half of Aerb with me. On Earth, there are no elves, they’re mythological, but the elves that I made up for our games are how they are on Aerb. Same goes for the dwarves, those are dwarves that I made up. And the stuff on Aerb that I didn’t make up, it either came from stuff you guys created as players, or it’s stuff that seems like I would have come up with.”
“If you hadn’t punched a dragon’s eye out, I would probably find that harder to believe,” said Tiff.
“You’re taking this well,” I said.
“I’m a wreck,” she replied. “But I’ve been a wreck ever since getting in touch with Reimer, and eventually the brain just can’t do it anymore. It’s like reading a book that has twenty different twists in it, eventually you’re just broken. You’re not surprised, you just want it to end. You accept the twists as they come.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“It’s not your fault, if that’s the way the world is,” she said. “I’m helpless in the face of all this. Just tell me what you need from me, or what I should believe.”
“My Arthur,” I said. “Same as yours, or near enough that we can talk about them as though they’re the same … how much do you know about Uther Penndraig?”
She stared at me. “You apparently don’t remember helping me with a very long paper about him?”
I frowned. “What did I know about Uther Penndraig?” I hoped that I hadn’t been a fanboy.
“Damned near everything,” she said. “You went on a bender reading biographies when you were twelve. Not the same on Earth?”
“No,” I said. “Sorry, Reimer didn’t mention this, it might be important.”
“Really?” she asked. “This is actually, seriously important?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe, probably not.”
“Okay,” she said, looking slightly worried. “Reimer said that he’d been answering a lot of questions.”
“You know what, just back it up to the previous point, we’ll give you a full debrief later,” I said.
“You were asking me what I knew about Uther, and I was saying that I knew enough to write a fairly comprehensive overview of his life,” said Tiff. “And I was going to ask why that was important.”
“Uther was dream-skewered,” I said. “Dream-skewered by my Arthur.”
Tiff stared at me. “Nope,” she finally said.
“I mean, it’s true,” I replied.
“Arthur,” she said. “I mean … you know that I loved him like a brother, right? But how does someone like Arthur become someone like Uther?”
“It’s a long story,” I said.
“And do we have time?” she asked.
“You know … we do,” I replied.
It took the better part of an hour to hit everything I thought was particularly important. I started with what I assumed had been the start for Arthur, coming across his whole ‘family’ dead at the hands of the Dark King. There was a three year gap when he was probably with a theater troupe, no hero to anyone, his rise to power as king … and then the story continuing on anyway, despite having reached its first logical stopping point, and then its second. I explained the narrative force, as Uther had understood it, and the ways he had presumably tried to work around it. I gave a brief digression into Vervain, the companion thought by Uther to be a DMPC, and that was where Tiff objected.
“He wouldn’t do that,” she said.
“It’s not the same Arthur we knew,” I said. “I mean, assuming that your Arthur and my Arthur were close enough proxies to one another. He came to this world at sixteen, and from there — he killed a lot of people, Tiff. Hundreds, by that point, maybe thousands if you include the impersonal ones. He led armies. He was definitely capable of killing someone in cold blood, especially if he thought they were the architect of his misfortune.”
“The stories of Uther aren’t like that,” said Tiff. “You’re painting me this picture of a grim and depressed man, someone who’s been worn out by two centuries of adventures packed into a forty year span, and —”
“I’ve been traveling with Raven,” I said. “Who, uh, incidentally looks exactly like Earth Maddie did.”
“Huh,” said Tiff. “But not like Aerb Maddie? Why?”
“No clue,” I said. “My best guess is that there was only a need for a single proxy, and Raven was it.”
“Because you believe in a higher power, like Arthur apparently did?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “I’ve spoken to him, actually. Once he appeared in my soul, the other time he stopped the world around us. Though he’s also probably been stopping time or talking to splinter versions of myself or erasing my memories of other encounters, or who knows what else.”
She stared at me. “But to what end?” she asked. “Is this meeting … part of it?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “This is more me, trying to make peace with you. To settle up before — well, we have reason to think that Uther is still alive, and I’m going after him.”
“Joon,” she said slowly. “I mean, I don’t know everything you know, you’ve been handed the keys to the kingdom, literally, you’re a prince now for fuck’s sake, but — do you think that’s something you should be doing?”
I blinked at her. “Wouldn’t you?” I asked. “I mean … it’s Arthur.”
“You know that he was one of my best friends,” she said. “But when people die, we — we try to work past it. We remember them, we mourn, it’s — I know you always hated that kind of story, but there’s a reason we tell them. Obsessing, getting wrapped up in those feelings of loss, I think that’s where you went wrong. You had all this anger and hatred toward everyone because it hurt, and I get that, but — I’m just worried.”
“I know it won’t be him,” I said. “I mean, at a minimum, he’s in his fifties, but there’s a good chance he’s even older. But come on, it’s still Arthur. And the stories about people obsessed with defeating death, or not being able to bring back loved ones, those only exist as a coping mechanism, they’re not real, there’s no fundamental imperative of the universe that you can’t bring back someone you lost.”
“Okay,” she said. “You’re living in a different world from me, and I’ll just have to trust that you know best. It’s just that when you talk about bringing Arthur back from the dead, even in this convoluted way, alarm bells start going off in my head. It feels like repeating history.”
“But I never tried to bring him back, did I?” I asked.
“No, but you were raging against the universe,” said Tiff. “You would have tried it, if there had been any viable path. You looked up every method you could think of, looking for long shots, or lost secrets, but of course, there were none.”
I knew that well enough. I’d done the same thing my counterpart had done when Fenn had died. Maybe me and him had ended up reading the same books, following the same hundred dead ends. That seemed like the kind of thing the Dungeon Master might chuckle about, that bastard. Maybe there was a universal imperative.
“I don’t think it’s like that,” I said. “But I’ll keep what you’ve said in mind.”
“Thank you,” she said. She smoothed out her skirt. “If we’re squaring things up, can I ask about Amaryllis?”
“Uh,” I said. “Sure.”
“Who was she, on Earth?”
“No one,” I said. “I mean, I think she’s an Aerb original. I didn’t invent her, if that’s what you’re thinking.
“So you didn’t have a poster of her in your room?” asked Tiff.
“Nope,” I replied. “To be honest, posters of women — I mean, it seems kind of creepy to me, outdated by Earth’s standards. Especially one like Reimer said that one was, not even intended for titillation.”
“Well,” said Tiff. “Not intended for titillation, but I don’t think titillation was lost on whoever was making those posters. Sex sells.”
I nodded. “Sorry if it’s awkward for you, me being married to her. It would probably have been awkward for the Earth verison of you, if for different reasons.”
“I guess I just want to know if you’re over me,” said Tiff. “And how that worked for you.”
“Ah,” I said. “Yeah. I don’t know. There were times, when we were dating, when I felt like you were the love of my life, like I should be moving mountains to make sure that we could stay together. I was imagining that we would go to the same athenaeum together, or if I couldn’t get into whichever one you ended up going, I could just live in the city, but then I would have to worry that our lives were going on different paths, and I would be committing myself to a relationship that was destined for a fork in the road, with no possibility that we were going to end up at the same destination. There was a part of me that hated it, because it felt like if we’d met at any other point in our lives, it would have been so much easier, and we could have just, I don’t know, gotten married and made it work better than my parents did, like we could have had kids and done a better job raising them than my parents did raising me — hey, don’t cry, it’s okay.”
“Sorry,” she said, wiping away a tear. “Fuck, Juniper.”
“Anything I can do?” I asked. “Did you — is it okay if I hold you?”
She shook her head. “We probably won’t see each other after today.”
“Probably not,” I replied.
“And it would just make me more heartsick,” she continued, shaking her head slightly.
“I probably would have fucked things up between us, if it’s any consolation,” I said. “I mean, I did fuck things up, so it’s likely that if I hadn’t fucked things up in the way that I did, I would have done it some other way.”
“It was recoverable,” she said, looking into my eyes with tears obscuring her vision. “Right?”
“Probably,” I said. I felt my heart sinking. Seeing her had brought a lot of feelings back up, and here she was, asking me point blank whether we could have gotten back together. Back on Earth, that had been, if not my plan, then at least a consideration. I’d thought that I could get the group back together, make my apologies, smooth things out, admit fault, and then maybe … well, maybe find Tiff in my arms once more.
“Tiff,” I said. “It’s so far away in time for me now, it’s — I was in a time chamber, sand magic, I’m a few months older than I should be, and —”
“I’m not asking you to, I don’t know,” said Tiff. “It’s just painful, thinking about what might have been, hearing all these things you never said out loud.”
“It is,” I said, but as I said it, I realized how much of a gulf there was between what we were experiencing. There was a part of me that wanted to start things up with this alternate Tiff, to reconnect, to patch things up more thoroughly than we could possibly do in an afternoon, all those old feelings for her were still there, somewhere, buried deep … but they were deep, and I felt no desire to dig. That was, on its own, a bit of a revelation for me.
“Do you know what happened to the real Juniper?” asked Tiff.
“No,” I replied. “Though I would probably know if he ended up in the hells. My best guess is that he’s gone forever, but I wouldn’t put it past this world to have one last twist in store, and my guess is that I’ll be able to make, uh, a reconstruction of him, bring him back to life.”
“If that’s possible, then — I would appreciate that,” said Tiff. “Do you think he really killed someone, in prison? Or was that you?”
“It was him,” I said. “And yeah, I think he probably did. Maybe not on purpose, but Tiff, I’ve killed people, a lot of people, so many that — I don’t know. It weighs on me. Some were more excusable than others, easier to justify.”
“Like in our games,” said Tiff. “Dozens dead and barely a thought given to it.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“You always did seem to think that some fuckers just needed killing,” said Tiff. “Or like a lot of problems could be solved with a solid punch in the face.”
“I felt it, I didn’t think it,” I said, feeling slightly defensive. “I’m a believer in rehabilitation, in structural solutions to structural problems, in the banality of evil and the ways that incentives drive actions. It’s just that our brains aren’t hooked up like that. We feel like punching problems works. There’s a satisfaction in it that’s not there in, for example, organizing the evacuation for millions of people from a dystopia and trying to get them proper education, healthcare, and therapy.”
“And you really did that?” she asked. “I’ve been reading the news, and your exploits — they’re unbelievable.”
“Eh,” I said. “I’d like to imagine that the whole situation in Necrolaborem was solved with grace and deftness, tied up with a pretty little bow. In truth, it’s ongoing, and Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle died before it was best for him to die. The most I managed to do was extract myself from the situation after putting in long hours to get things set for everyone else to do the work.”
“If even half of what they say is true, you’re being too hard on yourself,” she said. “You can’t expect to fix everything forever.”
“Yeah, I guess,” I said. But I did, of course, think that was my destiny, unless the Dungeon Master was just yanking my chain. “Speaking of … I should probably get going. There are some things that I need to get done before I go after Arthur.”
“Thank you for coming,” said Tiff. “I was worried that all I was going to get was that letter. It helped me, and I hope that it helped you too, in some way. And … I hope you’re happy with Amaryllis, for what it’s worth.”
“I am,” I said. “And thank you for having me.” I hesitated. “You don’t think that I should visit Maddie?”
Tiff shook her head. “I’ve talked to her. So far as she’s said, she’s got what closure she wanted. Once she heard that it wasn’t really you going around doing all those things, she made peace. I think if she knew how close you are to him, or how tangled up things really are, it would hurt her ability to move on. That’s just my opinion though. You had much less of an impact on her than you had on me. She’s already been through two boyfriends since dating you.”
“Okay,” I said, feeling slightly relieved.
“And Juniper, before you go … where is he? Arthur, or Uther?” She looked curious, but also a little anxious. The disappearance of Uther was one of the biggest mysteries of all time, so it was no surprise that she wanted to know.
“He tried to go back,” I said. “Back to Earth. Something must have happened to him along the way.” I hesitated, biting back the words for a moment, because I didn’t want to worry her. “Fel Seed is sitting on top of the tunnel.”
“You’re going against Fel Seed?” asked Tiff, eyes wide.
“Past him, ideally,” I said. “But yes.”
“Oh,” she replied. “Well … Juniper, if it’s all for Arthur, because you’re still hurting, because you can’t accept that he’s gone, then —”
“It’s complicated,” I said. “More complicated than I have the time to explain, probably more complicated than I should explain. But it’s not just because my friend died.”
“Okay,” she said. “I just don’t want you to have invented a new and exciting way to destroy yourself.” She gave me a somewhat strained smile.
“I’ll do my best to live a full and happy life,” I said. “And to do what’s best for Aerb and the realms beyond.”
“I guess that’s all anyone can ask,” she said. “Hopefully this isn’t goodbye forever?”
“Hopefully,” I nodded.
We had an awkward hug, and the smell of her brought back strong memories, but after she was out the door, they faded rapidly away.