Worth the Candle, Ch 108: The Dream That Skewers

When looking at the athenaeum system as a whole, I was very much reminded about what Figaro Finch and I had talked about regarding specialized hammers. If all you had were thirteen special hammers, then eventually you would start designating some of them for ‘close-enough’ purposes. Each of the athenaeums had carved out their own little slice of the higher-education pie, and usually centered around one or two complementary or linked types of magic, but there was a strong tendency for them to expand beyond that. The Athenaeum of Bone and Flesh wasn’t just a place where people learned bone magic, it was where they learned healing magic in general, and beyond that, they were the renowned experts in non-magical healing as well, save for the niche that the Athenaeum of Quills and Blood had carved out for itself. There were things you could learn without going to one of the athenaeums, since Aerb also had independent colleges, and not all of the minor magics were tightly regulated … but anyone who wanted to be someone in academics or magic needed to go to an athenaeum.

Speculation and Scrutiny was, in many respects, the junk drawer of the athenaeum system. They were the ‘hey, that’s weird …’ athenaeum, the place that studied all those little bits and bobs that people wanted to fully understand. Speculation and Scrutiny was divided up into colleges with their own subspecialties, one for entads, one for racial attributes and bloodline magics, one for ‘dead’ magics, one for Animalia, and so on and so forth. All in all, it was a long list of different things that were in need of study, with toes occasionally dipped into the waters that others had claimed. The dream-skewered were a part of the Cerebral College, with a small dormitory tucked away on the mountaintop campus. That was our destination.

Getting up the mountain from Boastre Vino was relatively easy; all we had to do was present temporary guest passes, which were given out fairly freely. Ours were forged, but there was no way to easily tell that. Much of the groundwork for our visit to Speculation and Scrutiny had been laid the last time we were in Boastre Vino; while Fenn and I had been busy with the unicorn stuff, the other members of the party had been getting some work done, and Amaryllis had put as much work as she could into all of the quests we had listed.

The trolley had seats for twenty, but we were the only ones on it. That wasn’t a huge surprise; we’d picked a time of day that was well outside peak hours. Boastre Vino was less connected to the athenaeum than you might have thought, for two places that were so close to each other. Speculation and Scrutiny had their own mess halls, entertainment, and services, all of them with the fairly large advantage of not having to spend a forty minute round trip to get to them. People did go down to Boastre Vino, but it was usually to buy specialty things that they couldn’t order by catalog, or to take in some sort of excitement that the athenaeum didn’t have on offer. The trollies ran, regardless.

“So, he’s an actor?” asked Fenn.

“Fenn,” said Amaryllis. “Don’t ask about him.”

“I just want to know whether I’ve seen anything he’s been in,” said Fenn. “Is that so much to ask?”

“Odds are you haven’t,” I replied. “I know that media gets a bit spotty as you go further forward in time, since there’s stuff that never went to VHS. DVD came out in, uh …”

“1995,” said Amaryllis. “But they still made movies on VHS as late as 2006.”

“Huh,” I said. “Yeah, that sounds right.”

“It is,” replied Amaryllis.

“But it would be useful to know if I had seen him somewhere, right?” asked Fenn. “Like, as an instrumental?”

“Instrumental what?” asked Amaryllis.

“… utility?” asked Fenn.

“I would prefer not to tempt fate,” said Grak.

“It’s not tempting fate, it’s learning,” said Fenn. “It can’t possibly hurt anything to know what the Cannibal was in,” she pointed to me. “Joon?”

“Uh, Transformers,” I said.

Fenn froze. “Wait, really? Transformers, robots in disguise, more than meets the eye, those Transformers? Because we totally saw that one. It’s got Citizen Kane, right?”

“What?” I asked. I tried to see some way that she could have misunderstood something, but was coming up blank.

“We need to shut this line of conversation down,” said Amaryllis. “Too much risk.”

“Wait, I want to understand what Fenn is talking about,” I said. “I really thought that getting you all exposure to Earth stuff would help, but it’s not really been the case. Half of the references are just gibberish to me.”

“Because you’re uncultured,” said Fenn with a huff. “Kane, from Citizen Kane, he was a Transformer, and apparently the world-eating cannibal was in it too.”

Solace leaned over to Valencia. “Should I be following any of this? What’s a robot?”

Valencia shrugged. “Sometimes I think they all went mad down in the time chamber.”

“To clarify, he won’t eat the world,” said Amaryllis. “I think it’s very important to not overstate threats. At best, the cannibal will kill a fairly large number of innocent people, especially if his name is said in a place with as dense a population as one of the athenaeums.”

“What is our plan?” asked Grak.

“We gather information first,” said Amaryllis. “There’s a lot that we don’t know about the dream-skewered. They’re a very, very niche curiosity.”

“Who you know about, in depth,” said Fenn. She rolled her eyes. “Naturally.”

“I really don’t,” said Amaryllis. “It’s included, briefly, in most reckonings of the greater cosmology, usually nestled somewhere between a paragraph on the excluded mirror dimension and a summary of the more hypothetical elemental planes. Before I met Joon, everything that I knew about Earth could have fit in a few pages, if that. I read The Dream that Skewers, which is authoritative, while I was in the chamber, but it’s a very thin book, and most of it is filled with musings rather than hard data. You’d think that if you were going to write a whole book about a group of people that claim to come from a shared alternate reality, you would include very important things like, I don’t know, the year that they think it is, or the names of the major governments.”

“You never asked me,” I said.

“Well,” said Amaryllis. She shifted slightly. “I did eventually. It didn’t seem important until much later.”

“It’s kind of not,” I replied with a shrug. “I read the book too.” I looked to the others. “It was more about Earth as a concept, the affliction, a few case studies, the facilities at Speculation and Scrutiny, the care provided there … it really went in the direction of The Care and Feeding of Dream-Skewered. There’s not a bunch about Earth. If you don’t actually care about Earth, which might as well not exist except so far as the deluded dream-skewered people think it does, then you don’t care so much about timelines.”

“What year is it on Earth?” asked Valencia.

“2017,” I said.

Valencia nodded. “I don’t know what that means. Fifteen hundred years in the future?”

“They use a different calendar,” said Amaryllis.

“I guess when I think about it, it took me quite a while to ask what year it was,” I said. “Unless you’re time traveling or studying history, it’s not really important.”

“You said that 1990 was the cut-off for our problem?” asked Amaryllis. “Anything before that, we don’t care about?”

“I … think so?” I asked. “He was a child actor, but … I don’t know when he really rose to fame. It was Even Stevens, I think? But that was before my time. I also don’t know how old he is. Twenties or thirties, I guess, so let’s say … he was probably born between 1977 and 1997.”

“Wait,” said Fenn. “When did Transformers come out?”

“Uh,” I said. “No clue, but I would say after 2000 before 2010?”

“And I suppose we can’t use IMDB?” asked Fenn, aiming that question at Amaryllis.

“Absolutely not,” said Amaryllis. “No web pages, period. I’m not just worried about the cannibal, I’m worried about other, hidden infohazards. Things that Joon didn’t think would make the leap, or which were intended as jokes.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “But I really don’t think this one is on me. I mean, it’s a lot more not on me than all the other stuff, which is also not my fault or responsibility. The purpose wasn’t to torture game characters … or, I guess it was to torture them as a joke, which is totally different.”

“Will it be funny if the cannibal kills us?” asked Grak.

“Uh,” I said. “Not to me, but from a certain point of view … yeah.”

“Well that’s fucking great,” said Fenn. She paused for a moment. “Wait! You have that virtue!”

“I do?” I asked.

“You take half as much damage from physical comedy, so long as it’s funny, right?” asked Fenn.

“You … may actually have a point,” said Amaryllis.

“Regardless,” I replied. “It’s not going to be a problem, because no one is going to say it. We don’t even have Bethel with us, which means that there’s no possibility that someone will try to pull something innocuous from Earth and trip the trigger by accident. Which we’re not actually sure is a possibility in the first place.”

“I’m pretty sure that Transformers didn’t come out when you think it did,” said Fenn with a frown. “And I really want to keep using the backpack, because guess what, there’s no one on Aerb that knows how to make sushi. Plus Earth bras are great.”

“I don’t think there’s an infohazard risk for clothing,” said Amaryllis. “But we need to have a serious discussion on opsec with regards to that particular ability, because there are going to be people gunning for us, and it’s better that no one makes the connection until after we’ve already established ourselves enough that they can’t knock our feet from under us.”

“I’m sorry that Uniquities found out,” said Valencia.

“They don’t know the full truth,” said Amaryllis. “All they have are some books.”

(This was significantly understating it. The actual text of the books wasn’t too worrisome, it was the covers and front pages that gave things away, because they were chock full of clues of their origin. Publishing companies, Earth locations, ISBN numbers, a barcode, all the kinds of things that marked it as very distinctly not a thing from Aerb. Amaryllis had some misgivings about all this, both that we’d left Valencia with that kind of thing, and that Valencia hadn’t put up a fuss about handing it over to Uniquities. It was understandable, from Val’s perspective, given that she’d just been given a reprieve from intense violence, but the whole affair had put a little wrinkle into their relationship. I was certain that Amaryllis was marking the information leaked to Uniquities as one of her failures, even though we’d both been there.)

“Well, I’m still sorry,” said Valencia.

“Can we talk about the Citizen Kane thing?” asked Fenn. “This is bugging me.”

I looked up the slope. “We’ve got a few minutes,” I said. “But I’m pretty sure you’re wrong, and we don’t have anything to reference in order to settle it. Transformers is, uh, not what I would consider a cultural touchstone, not in the same way that Star Wars or — oh, shit, don’t watch the fourth Indiana Jones movie.”

“I didn’t even know there was a fourth,” said Fenn. “Wasn’t on your list.”

“I don’t even know what Indiana Jones is,” said Valencia with a frown.

“Well, movie night is going to be on hold, apparently,” said Fenn. “I should still be able to watch anime though, right?”

“Subs or dubs?” I asked.

Fenn frowned at me. “Mary doesn’t have subtitles working.”

“Do you have any idea — no, I know that you don’t,” said Amaryllis. “But if we’re talking about EIA-608 encoding, which is the simplest form of closed captioning I could probably do, it’s not something that I’m ever going to have the time or manpower to work on, especially since I’m going to gather a standards council together in order to make our own, Aerb-specific standards.”

“You’re so great,” said Valencia.

“I was only asking because if it’s dubs, then you’d have to be careful,” I said. “He might have done voice work.”

“This is bullshit,” said Fenn. “And yes, obviously he’s done voice work, but American voice work, right? Blugh, I hate this.”

“I somewhat enjoy it,” said Solace.

“Um,” said Amaryllis. “What?”

The trolley car crested up to flat ground then came to a stop, in a long line with the others. Trolleys left every few minutes, in a continuous circuit.

“Sorry, hold that thought,” said Amaryllis. “We’re going full opsec, no breaches of the fourteen points of contention.”

“What’s opsec?” asked Fenn.

Amaryllis glared at her, then slid her helmet on as the doors opened.

“Well, I thought it was funny,” said Valencia.

“A bit,” said Grak.

We filed out of the car and took in the place. The Athenaeum of Speculation and Scrutiny was one of the smaller athenaeums, which meant that it ‘only’ had a hundred thousand students, divided up into a handful of colleges. It was a hell of a lot of people even before you added in all the faculty and staff, all of them packed onto the tip of the mountain. The architecture followed a uniform aesthetic, with tall buildings, lots of terraces, and swirling bas-reliefs wherever there was a large expanse of wall. The air was a bit thin, enough to be noticeable, and we were far above the timberline, but someone had gone through the effort of making sure there was greenery, in the form of short grasses growing in stone beds, and more exotic plants that didn’t have any leaves, instead looking like curled, waxy stalks.

“I think that I can explain as we walk, without revealing anything,” said Solace. Her voice was higher, now that she was a child, but it still had the air of wisdom and age to it. “Juniper has said that the great virtue of my kind is saxud, ‘doublethink’ in his parlance. The part I find enjoyable is in seeing how others react to having certain subjects which must be danced around, or certain thoughts that must not be thought.”

“Is that what being a — what being you is like?” asked Valencia. She stopped herself from calling Solace a druid at the last moment.

“Sometimes,” said Solace. “Not often. It was difficult, when I was younger, but as I grew old, it became much simpler. Now, after that violent rebirth, I find myself closer to the true ideal of those in my vocation. Pieces of the old me have been cleaned from my soul.”

“I wish you wouldn’t talk like that,” said Amaryllis.

“With happiness?” asked Solace. She let out a little laugh. “You’re a very good mother, to be worried about me so.”

The dream-skewered were kept in a combination dormitory, clinic, and research center. Last time we’d been in Boastre Vino, Amaryllis had gotten all of the information she’d thought we would need. This time, there wasn’t a Larkspur to stop us. The dormitory was a four-story building, wider than it was tall, but with the same terraces and bas-reliefs of the other, taller buildings around it. It had a fifteen foot, solidly-built wall, with holes and arches at the top for decoration. It was the only building with a wall around it, and I noticed that everything decorative about it was above the height a person could reach, even if they were jumping. The main gates were thick iron, locked shut. For all the efforts the exterior made to make the place look inviting, it still had the air of institutional confinement to it. So far as I was aware, the dream-skewered were checked in voluntarily and stayed by their own decision, but …

“There are heavy wards,” said Grak. “Heavier than on any other building on campus.” He pointed up to the top floor. “Annihilation wards, there. Instant death if you tried to enter or leave.”

“Ominous,” said Solace.

“Not instant death for everyone,” said Amaryllis, glancing in Valencia’s direction. Valencia was in the Red Armor of Arramor, completely covered, which would hide her from any warder, but it also made her look really fucking scary, especially because of the crown of thorns sitting on top of her helmet.

“There’s an intercom,” I said, pointing to a small box next to the gate.

“I want it on record that this is the most obvious trap in the world,” said Fenn.

I moved forward and gave the intercom button a press. There was something very satisfying about technology on Aerb. Everything had a thunk to it. I had to wait a few seconds before there was a voice on the other end.

“Yes?” it asked.

“Male, human, bored, wary,” said Valencia. She was speaking at a bare whisper, just behind my shoulder. If this was a trap, I had the feeling the jig would be up for them in short order.

“I was hoping to speak to Speculator Masters,” I said. “I had a few questions.” The name was one we’d picked up while we were in Boastre Vino, no thanks to me. “This is the place the dream-skewered are housed, isn’t it?”

The speaker was silent for a moment, then the gates began to creak open. “Someone will meet you in the lobby.”

“I can’t tell what the change in demeanor was,” said Valencia, still pitching her voice so that I could only just hear it. “It was either the name of Masters being mentioned, or something else.”

“You have speculations?” asked Amaryllis, who was standing close by.

“They have protocols and we just tripped one,” said Valencia. “I don’t have any insight beyond that. It might be paranoia. There are innocuous solutions to the question.”

“It wouldn’t be absurd for them to have a protocol for visitors,” I said.

“Not that kind of protocol,” said Valencia. “Something serious.”

The gates stopped with a shudder as whatever internal mechanism was responsible for opening it finished its work. It didn’t look like an evil lair of evil. We walked forward, on guard.

Wearing armor was frowned upon in polite society, but not so much that there were laws against it, or even so much that people would actually frown. There were a few features that were common for entad armor, including resizing, comfortability, breathability, and a host of others, which meant that armor wasn’t always such a burden on people as it might have seemed, and that in turn meant that you couldn’t just assume someone wearing full plate was getting ready for war. In addition to that, there were armors that provided useful, day-to-day utility for people, especially with regards to movement, and you wouldn’t want to castigate someone for wearing armor that could spirit him across the city and let him skip his commute.

(Added onto that was the question of money. Most entads ended up in the hands of the rich, through a couple of different mechanisms, and the rich tended to make the rules and set the fashions. Breastplates occasionally came into fashion as knock-offs or inspirations from some rich asshole being seen with a new entad, though the copycat armor was rarely functional. More often though, you’d see clothes cut or dyed such that they gave the impression of armor without any of the inconvenience.)

Weapons were a little less defensible in polite society. Some had mundane utility, sure, but for every entad sword that healed people instead of hurting them, you had a hundred more that were just more effective instruments of murder. The social pressure against going around armed was stronger, and you would get a look or two, though it was unlikely that anyone would make a comment about it. Swords were more acceptable than guns, in part because of the implied level of training and knowledge. Either way, a weapon at the hip would draw attention, and that attention would be largely negative, but it wasn’t anything you couldn’t overcome with a smile and a friendly demeanor. The attention was the big worry; if you wanted to go around without attracting attention, then it was better to be dressed as simply and non-threateningly as possible.

And then you had our little group of six. We hadn’t made any attempt at hewing to cultural expectations. No, if we were going up against He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, we were going to be doing it as fully armed as we could possibly be, at least to within the limits of what was legal. Valencia had red armor with tiny thorns, a crown of thorns, a sword at her hip, and two pistols in their holsters. All that was intimidating, even before you knew that the crown ate poisons, the sword ate memories, and the girl inside the armor was absolutely insanely proficient at combat. Amaryllis was next-most-scarily equipped, and I think Solace was the only one of us who could have passed for unthreatening.

A young man sat behind a counter in a reception area, looking a little too alert and straight-backed for my tastes, but that had to be the natural reaction of someone seeing so many heavily armed people come into the place.

“Ah,” he said, taking us in. His eyes lingered on Grak’s wooden hand. “Spec Masters will be down in a moment. Can I ask what this is regarding?”

“It’s confidential,” I said.

The young man nodded, then swallowed. “He’ll be right down. If you could sign in?” He pushed a clipboard across his desk, and Amaryllis picked it up, filling it in with our real names, save for her own, which matched the official pseudonym she used on the Isle of Poran.

(We were coming as ourselves for this one, more or less. It wasn’t the ideal trial run for coming out of the shadows, but it was the hand we’d been dealt. We were really hoping that there wasn’t going to be an official investigation, but if there was, we really couldn’t be operating as covert agents on foreign soil. That was not to mention the distinctive armor, weapons, and abilities, all of which had already been the giveaway for Uniquities. Going covert might have worked if we’d been willing to go in without weapons or armor, as we’d done when we hijacked the sky ship, but that seemed like asking for trouble here.)

The man who came down the elevator a few minutes later was wearing armor of his own, though nothing so ostentatious as what Valencia had on. His breastplate was semi-transparent and etched with the design of a tree in deep black. His shirt was an Earth-standard dress shirt though, and his black slacks and dress shoes weren’t too far off from Earth fashions either. He was an older man, gray at the temples, with crow’s feet and wrinkles on his forehead that became more pronounced when he looked at us.

“Speculator Masters,” he said, coming forward and shaking my hand first. I briefly wondered why that was, but I wasn’t too troubled by it; Amaryllis had said that she would defer to me, since I had far more knowledge about Earth and the threat surface of the infohazard.

“Juniper Smith,” I said. “We’re the Council of Arches. There’s something highly confidential that we need to discuss with you.”

“All of you?” asked Masters with a raised eyebrow. His eyes went to Valencia’s pistols and sword. “Am I in any danger?”

“This whole facility is,” I said. “And yes, I would prefer that we all stayed together.”

Masters looked at the six of us. “May I ask whether this is in regards to the dream-skewered?”

“Yes,” I said. “I won’t say more until we’re in private and under a fair number of wards.”

Masters didn’t move. “I’m not familiar with the Council of Arches.”

“We’re a relatively new national agency,” I said. “We recently happened to come across some information that it’s critically important for you to have.” Not that we were going to actually tell him, but we did need to give him the bare bones and talk with him about how the dream-skewered were handled with regards to topics on Earth. It made me uneasy that they were presumably all together.

“Very well,” he finally said. “We do have a conference room available for consultations with the affected and their families. We can discuss it there. As for wards, may I assume you’ll be supplying your own?”

“Yes,” I said with a nod.

We went up a flight of stairs together, and Masters eventually led us into a room with a long table that seated ten and a chalkboard at one end. Grak went to work immediately, laying in wards that would do at least a little bit of work toward making sure that no one could listen in.

“I’m listening,” said Masters, once Grak had confirmed that the room was about as secure as he could make it. He was still looking at me. I’d talked with Amaryllis about what I was going to say, but it felt nervous for me to be in the driver’s seat.

“We need information first, in order to know how to present this,” I said.

“Information of what sort?” asked Masters.

“Information about Earth,” I replied. “We need to know some specifics about the world that the dream-skewered believe they come from.”

Masters frowned slightly. “You believe that you might have found something that would negatively impact the health and safety of my patients or the staff at this facility?” he asked.

I nodded. “It’s hard to know whether or not it’s even wise to give you the barest description without knowing more about the dream-skewered.”

Masters looked like he’d just eaten a lemon. “I’m going to need to screen you,” he said.

“Screen us?” I asked. I was already on guard, but that bumped me up a few levels.

“I need to check whether any of you are dream-skewered,” said Masters.

“And there’s a screening protocol for that?” I asked.

Masters nodded. “There are certain things that I would not say to a dream-skewered, for reasons of their health and safety.”

“Valencia?” I asked, turning to her. She was sitting just to my left, with her fingers resting on my thigh, where she could tap in code to tell me what she was picking up without Masters being able to see. So far, nothing.

“What’s your species?” asked Valencia.

“Ell,” replied Masters, looking at Valencia more closely. She had used a voice of command and authority, but it was still a girl’s voice.

The Ell were one of the earliest races that I ever made, the kind of sloppy worldbuilding that you’d expect from a ten-year-old. They looked human, but lived a hundred times slower. That meant that when they slept, it was 800 hours, not eight. Their meals were one hundred times bigger, but spread out over one hundred times longer. There was a lot about the concept that hadn’t made too much sense when you thought about it, but they existed on Aerb, and all the rough edges of that amateur effort had been sanded down in various ways.

“You trained with the Elon Gar,” said Valencia.

Masters nodded once, cautiously. “It’s not uncommon for my people,” he said. “Sleep is more of a thief to us than almost any of the other mortal species.”

I was inwardly groaning. The Elon Gar were an order of monks who specialized in manipulating the mind; they could get by on ten minutes of meditation instead of sleeping, they could organize their memories far better than normal, and in general exhibited a degree of control over their own minds and bodies which on Earth would have been considered supernatural. Checking them out was on our list, but there was no quest, despite efforts at prompting one, and no obvious skill that needed unlocking. My guess was that they were the equivalent of the blade-bound, but for more social or mental skills, and ostensibly ‘non-magical’.

Their best ability? Total control of their facial features. The monks of the Elon Gar were masters of keeping a stone face, which made them impeccable liars. And it was just like the Dungeon Master to throw one at us now that we had Valencia.

“You were trained inexpertly,” said Valencia with some satisfaction. She turned to look at me through the eye slits of the armor. The decorative thorns around them looked a bit like flames. “He’s lying.”

Okay, or he’s not meant as a foil to that particular ability.

“I’m not lying,” said Masters. “I do need to perform a screening. There’s more to the dream-skewered than you know.” I felt my heart start beating a little faster at that. Did he know about the Cannibal? Or was this about something else?

“But it’s not for health and safety?” I asked.

Masters paused. “No,” he said.

“He’s following deeper directives,” Valencia supplied.

“Then we both have information the other wants,” I said. I hesitated for just a tick. There was no way that they were going to involuntarily commit me, not when we had this much firepower on our side. “I’m dream-skewered.”

Masters sucked in a breath, which he let out slowly. “Then it’s all the more important that I screen you.”

“Looking for what?” I asked.

“There are different presentations of the phenomenon,” said Masters.

Ah. Others with my power? That would be … unexpected, but not wholly unanticipated.

“What form does this screening take?” asked Amaryllis.

“You’ll hold an entad in your hand while I say a series of words,” said Masters. “The entad will change colors, giving a reading of your surface level recognition.”

Mind-reading. Entads had variable effects, but some effects were rarer than others. Mind-reading, even at the low level he was talking about, was virtually unknown. That gave a good benchmark of his power level: high.

“I consent,” I replied.

Masters nodded briefly, then excused himself so he could retrieve the entad he would need.

“Grak, are we good to talk?” asked Amaryllis, as soon as Masters was gone.

“Likely,” said Grak.

“Luck sense isn’t getting pinged yet,” said Fenn. “Common sense is screaming at me to get out of here though.”

“I’m worried about black swans,” said Amaryllis. “Really worried. There’s too much power concentrated here. Something isn’t right.”

“If he were coming back to kill us, I’m pretty sure I would feel it,” said Fenn.

“He might just be trying to contain the infohazard we’re here to warn him about,” I said. “That would be consistent with his level of caution.” I hesitated. “Val, you said that he was lying about it being for my health and safety?”

“I was bluffing,” she said. “It seemed like a good idea at the time. He is out of practice, or wasn’t trained well, but he’s still very hard to read, and he’s trying very hard to keep it that way.”

“Well, –” began Amaryllis.

The door opened back up, and Masters slipped back inside. He was holding a small gray ball in his hand. It was slightly reflective, with striations on the surface that reminded me of marble. In his other hand, he held a sheet of papers.

“You can have your warder inspect the entad, if you would like,” said Masters. He took his seat once more, placed the papers on the table, then rolled the ball from one hand to the other. “I’ll demonstrate its use. Say a noun or noun phrase, one that you would expect me to know, then one that you wouldn’t expect me to know.” He picked the ball up, holding it in his hand.

“Anglecynn,” I said. The ball in his hand lit up a bright green. I paused, trying to think carefully about a noun that he wouldn’t know. “Fenn Greenglass.” The ball lit up again, this time emitting a gray light before fading back to its base, unlit state. It was on our intake form, but he hadn’t read that, and we’d made no formal introductions. He set it down on the table again. “How many colors?” I asked.

“Four,” said Masters. “Green is known to you personally, blue is known to you from some outside source, grey is unknown, and yellow is known and then later forgotten. Intensity of light matches intensity of knowledge.” He rolled the ball across the table to me. I glanced at Grak, who gave me a nod, then picked it up, feeling its weight. “It’s harmless, save for the information it allows me to obtain.” The ball pulsed green as he spoke, once each for ‘it’, ‘information’, ‘it’ and ‘me’.

I stared at the ball and wondered how complex of a noun phrase it was capable of dealing with, and then pondered how it could possibly be working, then trying to think like Reimer about all the things that I would munchkin it for, if it were mine. He would probably try to pin down exactly what constituted a noun phrase and then move on from there. The entad wasn’t something that I had designed, but it had that familiarity to it, like it was something that I would design.

“Okay,” I said. “I’m ready.”

“We’ll start slowly,” said Masters. He paused. “Really, I should have the rest of you leave the room, so as not to influence future screenings. It’s not normally a concern, but –”

“No,” I said. “I’m freely admitting to being dream-skewered. If the others were, they would say so as well.”

Masters nodded. “Very well.” He looked down at his papers. “We’ll start slow. Before we begin, can you give me a rough estimate of how long it’s been since you were transferred to Aerb?”

I frowned as I tried to think about that. From whose reference frame? “Four months,” I said.

Masters gave me a quizzical look. I was fairly sure that was longer than the average. “Many features of Aerb will be familiar to you then.”

“Yes,” I replied. Much more than you know. I was a tiny bit worried about that.

Masters cleared his throat. “Let’s begin then. The Empire of Common Cause.” The ball turned green in my hand. “Aerb.” Once again the ball turned green. “Invreizen.” Blue.

This continued on for longer than it seemed like it should have. I understood that it was probably calibration, but I didn’t really need thirty names and places from Aerb in a row. At first they were blue or green across the board, but the last ten had a few yellow and gray, presumably because they were more obscure. Whatever Mome Rath was, I had apparently forgotten it.

And then, without seeming to switch gears at all, Masters said “Earth”, which came up green.

“England,” said Masters. Blue.

“The United States of America,” said Masters. Green.

He was holding his paper up slightly, so I couldn’t read what was on it from where I was sitting. I was suddenly curious whether this was a list or a flowchart. If dream-skewered came from England, you’d need a different chart for them, wouldn’t you? He continued with places for a bit.

“Adolf Hitler,” said Masters. Blue. “John Fitzgerald Kennedy.” Blue. “Richard Nixon.” Blue. “Bill Gates.” Blue. “Silicon Valley.” Blue.

We were moving forward in time, that much was clear. Was the purpose of the screening to figure out what time the dream-skewered were from? But that didn’t make sense, since there didn’t seem to be any reason you couldn’t just ask, aside from maybe the mind-fuck of someone asking what year you thought it was.

“Elon Musk.” Blue. “Justin Bieber.” Blue. “Miley Cyrus.” Blue. Even after all that I’d spent two months in the chamber steeped back into Earth culture, it was utterly bizarre to hear these names coming from the mouth of an armored man while sitting at a conference table. “Henry Swift.” Gray. “Abigail March.” Gray. I frowned at that. Testing for false positives? Or something else? “Abigail Breslin.” Blue. “Adam Driver.” Blue. “Zootopia.” Green. “Finding Dory.” Green. We continued on with movies for a while, all of them somewhat recent. I’d heard of all of them; the ones I’d seen showed up green, while the ones I hadn’t showed blue. The movies were a surprise, but it was expected that someone who ran a dorm filled with dream-skewered would have in-depth knowledge of Earth. So close to the time I left though … that was curious.

I kept waiting for the moment he would mention a movie in the Cannibal’s filmography. Was this an infohazard they had already contained? Was that the purpose of this?

“Arthur Blum,” said Masters. The ball lit up a bright green.

He said the name like it was any other thing on that list. I wanted to stop him, but I was too shocked to say anything.

“Tiffany Archer,” said Masters. Green. “Arthur Reimer.” Green again. “Thomas Clint.” Green.

I sat there as he listed off a dozen names. The ones that weren’t members of our gaming group were people we’d gone to high school with. I just sat there in stunned silence, watching the ball turn green again and again.

“We’re done,” said Masters. He was looking at me calmly, as though nothing was strange about any of this. “You said that your own name was Juniper Smith.” The ball flashed green for a final time, and I gently set it down on the table.

We sat in silence for a bit. Maybe Masters was waiting for me to speak, but I had nothing to say.

“So,” I said slowly. “Where does that list come from?”

“Uther Penndraig, the Lost King,” said Masters.

I stayed silent for a moment, looking at the wall to the left of Masters’ head. “And … how many does the average dream-skewered get from that list?”

“How many would you guess?” asked Masters. His voice was flat, emotionless.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Mome Rath was the last of the Aerbian ones?”

Masters nodded.

“Then … I would guess that they stop somewhere around Adolf Hitler.” I wasn’t sure about that. I had wondered why, if there were a thousand dream-skewered, none of them had done something like what Arthur had done. Surely with a thousand of them over the course of the last five hundred years, one would have been an engineer capable of making the advances that Amaryllis was planning. My current working theory was that most of the dream-skewered came from earlier in Earth’s history, maybe centered around a bell curve, with Arthur at the very far end, which would solve a lot of the problems inherent in the worldbuilding aspects, but —

“There are no dream-skewered,” said Valencia.

Masters hesitated, then nodded.

Quest Completed: The Name of the Beast – I guess some problems just solve themselves.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 108: The Dream That Skewers

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