I went down into a slumber
And I traveled many streams
Constellations without number
A world interned in heavenly schemes
When I awoke dear
I held you close dear
And thought of all the foolish things
If not I, someone
In my body has done
Incognito in my dreams
-Orphans & Vandals, "Incognito"
A graffitoed boombus burst from a backalley, scraping the drainpipes of the wonkety rises of flats.
In its path, a scrapmetal jalopy appeared out of nowhere, and its passengers kissed airbags and blanked as the impact skullpunched their cortices.
The little car skittered and slid stopped by a dead fountain where skatepunks flipped in the ashy bowl.
"I don't know who I am," said the front passenger. The red checkered bags sucked back into their fittings, and she fumbled down the sunvisor mirror and saw her own face, droop-haired and sepulchral, her eyes, curious and shrewd, her dangerous nosebridge and gentle crooked smile.
"Your name," said the driver, "is Risa Dred-Stoke. We are agents of a caper that serendipped that boombus to zero your brains for faesplice. We are now, ambiguously, on Ladbroke 4-2. On this island of Consensus, we have stormed the beach and can now move inland. But if we draw too many eyes, we never existed."
The driver was a sleek woman in mirrored cat sunglasses and a spiky black skullcap. She turned to the backseat passengers, a sprightly brick-faced bloke and a dreadlocked androgyne. "Your name is Denova Sun-Stoke. And you're Dick Sergeant."
Sergeant said, "What are we doing, and how do you know so much?"
"I'm a transcended simbrain. My name is Trixie Stoke-Aisling, and we're going to steal a time engine."
In the SETI office, Perceva Seeth listened to the song from space, and Crafton Veer swooned at the noise leaking from the headphones, like the shrieking trill of an eldritch god gone mad with joy.
Perceva looked curious, puzzled, troubled, and then shocked. She jerked the phones from the jack. "I've heard enough." She fought back a shiver. "It's not even that good." Angrily she brushed a tear from her eye and turned on the professor. "And it's not from space."
"How do you know?"
"It's not weird enough. The notes are just the pentatonic scale, embellished by errors. It has verse-chorus structure. There's weirder music being made in this city. Your song is Earth pop."
"What human can sing like that?"
"Tigers paralyze their prey with a low frequency vocal rumble. This is the same thing, some kind of resonant frequency that matches the default echo of the brain."
"If it's a technology," he mused, "it could be used by anyone."
"What else would it be?"
"A one-off. Something that by nature cannot be duplicated."
"But there still has to be a mechanism."
"Not necessarily. The mechanism might just be that this thing needs to happen."
"Are you really a scientist?"
"Science has rules, and it has boundaries. I know the boundaries from both sides. That's why I never got tenure."
"Do you believe in truth?"
"Truth is a game of musical chairs where they try to keep removing chairs, until there's only one, but it turns out they have to keep adding chairs. And the music never really stops."
"Your music," she said, "is the sonic weapon of an enemy state, or the latest mass-media machination of a monster tech company."
"How did they ventriloquize the Pleiades?"
"They hacked your computer."
"The telescope," he said, "has a carrier wave, a default hum that is not separate from celestial messages, but grows to become them. If you listen again, you'll hear it."
She looked down at her hand, still white-knuckling the headphones, and she forced them through her fingers and set them down with a tremble.
"Show me your telescope."
"Leave the car," Trixie said. "These drivers only see it at the edges of their unlinked eyes, where it will patiently dis-exist."
She led them down a sidestreet whose walls were chipped limestone blocks wheatpasted with posters for music shows: psychpunk and shimstomp, doompomp and dredge, ur-shmaltz and glow-and-drizzle. Perched on the iron rail of a downstair, a feral orphan played a theremin ukelele.
Risa stopped to listen. "Kid, is that for sale?"
Still tickling the air, he finished his ditty and winked at Trixie. "To you, for a kiss."
She kissed his forehead. "Hello Nim. I thought we'd left you behind."
"I remember," he said. "Thick head."
Risa said, "Small brain."
Trixie looked down the stairs. "What's behind that door?"
"Don't know, deadlocked."
Sergeant said, "Do you want to get in?" He reached into a pocket and found a set of lockpicks, deftly fashioned from streetsweeper brushmetal. "I forgot I had these."
He reached for another pocket and Risa grabbed his arm. "Not until you need it! As long as you don't know what your pockets hold, they could hold anything."
Denova looked at her shoulder satchel and her face lit. "I want an endless jug of Minoan spiced rum." She reached inside and pulled out a foodfab specialized to that drink, even mocking the bottle's classic shape. "Are we in heaven?"
"We are in a dying dream if we fail," Trixie said, "and if we succeed, we are hardcoding history. So don't waste your finite rabbit hat on trivialities."
"Your mum's a rabbit!" She took a swig. "This is important."
Sergeant sniffed the wafting aromatics. "Minoan rumspice has organic molecules that require a level three fab. Denova, is that the real stuff?"
"Do dream sheep shit in your head?"
"Then I can use this," he fingered a pocket flap, "a micro-magfocus multitool, optimized level four in fabhacking, to make that bottle dispense any organic molecule up to 21 carbons."
He pulled it out and beheld a dastardly screwdriver. Its handle was Diphous Hephister, an uncanny alloy that absorbed all light and was fully permeable to a living metalworks whose esoteric circuits hinted at their transient functions by throwing golden surface ripples. From the tip, a proboscis telescoped like a flicknife and spat dancing sparks.
"Careful," Trixie said. "Those sparks are transphysical."
Sergeant reached his mind to the tool and fumbled the grip, and sparks showered them all like a sunburst firework.
Trixie burst out laughing. "Stop it, it tickles!"
He wrangled his head around the tool and settled it.
"Well," Trixie grinned, "your faepockets are now totally jinxed. There's no telling what might come out."
Risa sniffled her nose and just started to reach for her breast pocket — that was all it took for the hairtrigger dreamfab to erupt with a continuous stream of her handkerchief, realistically filthy.
"Get it off me!" Denova backed away. Risa turned the crusty clothstream down the little stairwell.
"Not yet," Trixie said. "We need to get through that door and off the street."
Sergeant dashed down and stuck his brushpick in the cylinder, while Risa stood at the top of the stairs and tried to hold the cascade as it bunched under her chin.
"If we don't get through that door," Trixie said, "you'll have to take off your dress. We'll leave it and run."
"You hear that?" Risa looked down the stairs and winked. "Get us in or it comes off."
Desperately, Sergeant whisked out his micromag and worked double with the iron pick. The lock sprung. With a twist, the bolt withdrew. The pocket fizzled to its end and Risa hauled her dirty burden down.
"Remember," Trixie said, "behind that door could be anything."
Together, Sergeant and Risa tugged the handle. A wax seal broke, and a great breath rose like the sigh of an old man who fed on honey and bitter treenuts. Below, a rough-hewn stone stair led deeper.
"What were you thinking of?" Risa said.
"Steam tunnels, going anywhere under the city. You?"
"That poster up on the street, for The Monks of Unnecessary Repentance."
"Catacombs!" Trixie said. "Risa, tie one end of your kerchief to the railing."
"Why?" Denova said. "So we don't get lost? I've got a compass." She reached into her bag and pulled out a sundial.
Risa said, "If the catacombs are not well-remembered by the city, we could get more than lost. We need a physical link to hold us to this world, or we might wander into solipsistic entropy."
She tied a firm knot. "Nim, guard our intersubjective tether. We're going down."