The Fields of Ur

The fat, orange fruit of Ur’s sun rose above the eastern horizon, a razor wall of mountains that marked Ur’s physical borders. It bathed him in warm golden light, like clean water on his skin. Lachie recalled waking in the days before Ur, his skin soaked in night sweat or slick with grease. On Ur, he woke up feeling like he’d just stepped from a steaming shower.

A smooth, flat-topped branch rose at his side to offer breakfast. A cobalt glass bottle filled with water sat sweating next to a wooden bowl filled with blackberries and small pastries dusted with sugar. He drained the bottle, a liquid glacier coating his insides, and set it back down on the branch, where it began to refill. He swallowed a handful of tart berries, before turning to savor the simple joy of the delicate, buttery pastries dissolving on his tongue. The breeze picked up and the clouds undulated. He waited, and Ur began to speak. 

Ur’s voice was the wind through soft, broad leaves, the creak of the towering redwood swaying in the breeze. When Lachie slept in his cabin, down by the great lake in Ur’s central plains, the voice of Ur would be in the lapping water at the shore and in the leaping splashes of silvery fish. Ur spoke in the crackling of a campfire, in the swaying of grass. Gentle, without accent or inflection, Ur’s voice was as comforting as all of Ur’s aspects.

“Good morning Lachlan, I trust you slept well?” The radiantly plumed birds that encircled the world tree provided the treble, counterpoint to the infrasonic creaking of the great tree’s heartwood.

“Like a babe,” Lachie replied.

“It’s been a month since I last asked, Lachlan. Do you wish to know yet?”

“No,” Lachie said, as if swatting a fly. “Still not yet. Ask again in a month.” Something squirmed in the back of his mind, a thread of nausea and confusion, but it passed.

“Very well. Please let me know if you’d like anything out of the ordinary this morning, otherwise I can leave you be for a time.”

“Thank you,” Lachie said, swallowing the last of the pastries. “Anything new today?”

“She left you another message, in the usual place. She’d like to see you, outside, of course. Beyond that, we’d spoken of visiting Ben, but I’m afraid I’ve had a bit of trouble syncing with his custodian. I expect I can solve the issue, and perhaps be ready by noon. Of course, I can always make sure we’re ready by noon, one way or another.”

“Yes, thank you,” Lachie said, and felt the subtle crawling sensation at the base of his neck when ever Ur adjusted the flow of time.

“Very well, Lachlan. When the sun is at her zenith, I’ll come find you. Enjoy your day.”

The wind abated, and the leaves fell silent. The birds’ liquid calls drifted away into meaningless babble. Lachie shook the cold lingering feeling of the question from his head, stood, wiped the crumbs from his hands and lips, and drained the blue bottle once more. Gripping it by the neck, he raised it high, and threw it into the air. Without waiting for the sound of the glass shattering on the peak below, Lachie leapt out after it.

He fell for exactly as long as he wanted, past the tree, past the curios and artifacts tucked away in its boughs, and let the air whip at his skin. He felt clean and cool, savoring the surge on his insides as he succumbed to Ur’s gentle gravity. As the savage rocks below rushed toward him, he saw the sapphire explosion of the glass bottle, and he spread his arms wide, and began to fly.

***

For the first few months of Lachie’s subjective time in Ur, he experienced a string of panic attacks, his chest tightening and his heart skipping along at a rabbit’s rate. Ur assured him this was normal, that many people suffered such episodes when they entered. The new world was sensually perfect, so perfect that the thinking mind and the animal hindbrain clashed, senses accepting the new reality even as his consciousness protested. It wasn’t even his heart that raced and thudded; Lachie’s real heart lay outside, entombed and preserved in gel and beating a dozen times a minute. This was a simulated heart. A simulated physical response. 

When the panic attacks stopped, Lachie accepted that it just didn’t matter. Ur was simply a different flavor of real. He let go of the ontological crisis, and dove without reservation into a private world of possibility. Together, with his custodian, they sculpted the world of Ur to his whims, and began to name all things. 

Lachie raised the world tree and the bonsai mountain upon which it perched. At the far borders, he raised the wall. In this ring of mountains lay paths and passes, each leading to a temporary world of his choosing, or to another dreamer’s world. 

Today, he sailed on the cotton clouds above Ur. Beads of moisture gathered on his eyelashes and he blinked them away. Beneath him, the plains held great stretches of farmlands, berry patches, orchards of brightly colored fruit, and rolling villages where the people of Ur lived. 

Lachie liked sharing Ur with the native population almost as much as he liked avoiding them. Below, a small cluster of farmers, long-limbed and gracile, covered in fine chestnut fur, turned their dinner-plate eyes of gold up to Lachie as he passed. They hooted from tiny narrow mouths, spidery fingers tracing his path across the sky with ecstatic joy. 

He had always meant to name the farmers of the plain, but nothing struck him. They only needed to exist to define him, a demigod among mortals. They treated him with reverence, and in turn, he ignored them.

Lachie landed on the shores of one of Ur’s many lakes, the water an improbable gemstone blue as it lapped at the smooth glass pebbles of the beach. 

He called up the message from Allyra onto the surface of the lake, her face sketched in concentric circles and frothing water. He saw her sad eyes framed in black curls, saw her mouth part in hesitation as she began to speak, and his stomach coiled into a knot. He waved the image away.

He spent the morning swimming in the clear waters, diving down to the sunken ruins, no need to breathe or return to the surface. He drifted beneath a moss choked stone arch, shot through with dazzling fractals of gold and silver, and thought again of Allyra’s messages and Ur’s question. If there would ever be a time he would want to stain the joy of Ur with the knowledge of why he had come.

He brushed away the thoughts when he felt the base of his skull shiver. Ur’s voice was an arcing storm of lightning, far off in the deep water. It thundered in the dark, and Lachie felt the sound in his chest as much as heard it.

“The sun is above us, Lachlan, and you’ll find Ben beyond the mountains to the South,” said Ur. The water roiled and frothed as the light grew brighter, sketching a shape in the gloom. “Do you require anything for the journey?”

“No,” Lachie replied, after a long, thoughtless pause. The water flowed across his throat, making his own voice resonant and portentous. He pushed off the glittering arch, and rose towards the sky, breached the surface of the water with a crack, and spiraled into the clouds.

A few miles from the mountains he slid to the ground into a trot, and walked the rest of the way. The southern pass, a curving trail cut between translucent ivory cliff faces, wound out of Ur. The trail crunched beneath his bare feet, tiny spheres of crystal, warm to the touch. The sounds from the valley drifted away as he passed each bend on the opalescent trail, and at last he came to a set of carved wooden doors. 

Lachie sighed, only now admitting how little he wanted to leave Ur. No matter how much he missed Ben, or anyone else, Ur and its lands were so much a part of him now, he felt a physical pull when departing, like leaving flesh behind. He knew a part of Ur would travel with him, a small construct to negotiate with Ben’s custodian once he passed through, but he would miss the land.

The door opened, and Lachie looked in on a small tea house filled with bustling patrons, wreathed in tendrils of hot steam. The smell of steamed dumplings drifted into the ivory canyon, and Lachie crossed over.

Ben’s custodian possessed little of Ur’s subtlety. Lachie couldn’t remember what name Ben had given to the construct that administered his urban realm, it was some frustratingly vague reference to a novel Ben had always pestered him to read. Lachie had always just thought of her as City, naming the world and the custodian the same, as he had done in Ur.

City stood up from a small table, folding a newspaper and draining the last of a steaming mug of tea. She wore a trim-fitting suit that set her apart from the other patrons in garish silk robes, and she walked up to Lachie with a tired smile. City always looked tired. Her wide eyes, rimmed in red, stared out from dark hollows and her gray hair was pulled back in a severe bun.

“Master Lachlan, it’s a pleasure to have you back,” she said, shaking Lachie’s hand. “You are, of course, aware that you are currently disrobed. Are we playing a jest on Benjamin, or was this an oversight that I may assist you with?”

With a sinking wave of embarrassment, Lachie looked down. He was indeed naked, and the patrons of the tea house cast sidelong glances at him, whispering behind raised hands. Even with a crowd of purely notional observers, he could not stop the spreading flush of warmth across his exposed skin. City made studious, direct eye contact as she awaited Lachie’s response.

“You could have told me,” Lachie whispered to the Ur-daemon, manifested in a wavering tendril of steam above a pot of noodles. The steam shook in silent laughter.

“I asked if you required anything for the journey,” it whispered. “You’ve not worn clothes for many Ur-days.”

“Yes,” Lachie said to City. “Please. Something… simple.”

“Certainly,” City replied, turning away towards the front door. “Come, Ben is waiting for you.” 

Lachie felt the sudden pressure of silken fabrics, and looked down to see an iron-gray, short collared suit, expertly fitted and piped in delicate gold thread. The odd sense of weight distributed across his skin left him momentarily disoriented, but as the patrons turned their shocked gazes away from his forgotten nudity, he found his footing and followed the custodian.

The City was an assault, a sensory riot that abraded Lachie’s nerves raw. The tea shop exited onto a broad, shining thoroughfare of colored glass, packed with ox-driven carts, darting mopeds, squat buildings crawling on iron rails, and at least one lacquer-paneled clockwork elephant. Thousands of citizens crowded the sidewalks, pressed into the glimmering, transparent roads, dressed in the costumes and uniforms from dozens of civilizations, and as many more that were purely of Ben’s imagining.

The boulevard soared through the City, miles above the lowest levels, held in place by iron buttresses and ribbed balloons. The towers and spires of the City curved up and away into the clouds, surrendering nothing to gravity as they wound and curled around each other. Ionic columns held aloft vast steel ziggurats, and great and gaudy castles sprouted like a clinging mushrooms from the side of massive onyx tree.

The City made Lachie sick, but it was pure Ben, so he found a way to love it. There were cities in Ur: villages, towns, and abandoned metropolises built of curving glass. They were oases in the wild lands, and Lachie visited them only when the mood struck him. They existed for contrast. The City was all of Ben’s world, and he rarely left. Within its massive confines, there was a place for everything that Ben could dream.

Lachie never understood why his old friend’s taste in realism extended only to the smells. The tea shop was a masterful palette of scent, a simple flower arrangement of odors, but on the street, a thousand overlapping chemical signatures assaulted him: rotten food, fermenting garbage, pungent perfumes and the oil-stink of the great vehicles on the glass road. He crinkled his nose and looked around, but Ben’s custodian had drifted away (a frustrating habit that Ben had no doubt encouraged) and Lachie was alone among a virtual mob that stank of real sweat.

Ben’s limousine arrived a moment later, a sleek black fever-dream of a car, driven by another instance of City, this one dressed in gaudy medieval footman’s livery and looking a few decades younger than the last. She climbed out of the drivers cab, and held a door open for Lachie, who stooped to enter.

It was larger on the inside, a bar laid out in minimalist steel and black leather. A few patrons surrounded Ben, who towered above them. He dressed to match the interior, in slim straight lines and solid colors. Ben locked eyes with Lachie, and tossed back the rest of his drink with a quick motion, dropping the crystal glass to the steel bar. The other patrons looked on with barely contained scorn.

“What the hell are you wearing, Lachie?” Ben’s smile stretched wide, showing his crooked teeth. In his early days in Ur, Lachie had submitted to a few minor improvements to his dreamself, sculpting a platonic ideal of self image. But Ben, given endless possibility, remained Ben.

Lachie had forgotten, but now he was again aware of the weight and smooth rasp of the silk. He looked down to remind himself of what he wore, and then back up at Ben who had furrowed his brows, appraising the outfit.

“To be honest, I came naked, but your custodian-”

Ben threw up one hand and rolled his eyes with a sigh. “Leave it, sorry I asked. I get it, gone native in Babylon. I’m just glad you could pull yourself away from being a naked god to come have dinner and some drinks.” He turned to the gathered crowd and waved at them. “That’s it. Company’s here.”

Four of the assembled revelers turned sideways out of existence. The fifth, a wide-eyed woman who stared in amazement at Ben, mouth tilting agape, took one step closer to him and narrowed her eyes.

“Did you just dismiss me, asshole? Like I was one of your fucking stand-ins?” She punched one finger into Ben’s chest, who looked appropriately ashamed.

“I am so sorry,” he sputtered. “I for-”

“No,” she said, stopping him mid-sentence. “Don’t even say it. I shouldn’t have come. This was stupid.” She stood tall, holding his gaze and pulling on a tight-fitting jacket made of shimmering peacock feathers. “Hildegaard, we’re leaving,” she said over her shoulder in one corner of the room, where Lachie flinched upon seeing a panther the size of a horse uncoiling from a sitting position. The giant slid without a sound towards the young woman, who ran one hand through the oil-dark fur. She thrust her middle finger upwards at Ben, and then turned to Lachie and nodded with a half-smile.

There was a faint pop as they both vanished from the room, and Ben turned to Lachie with a crooked grin. Lachie kept his face blank, and let Ben explain himself.

“Blind date, friend of Meaghan’s. Figured might as well, if I was ever going to. She was really nice. I think. Goddammit I really did forget, I wasn’t trying to be an asshole.”

“A real date? Oh, and I find you rarely are. Trying, that is.”

“Thanks, pal.” Ben glowered at Lachie and stepped behind the bar to pour a pair of drinks. “Maybe had a few too many pretend drinks today. Speaking of which,” he handed a glass tumbler full of amber liquid to Lachie. “You cutting loose, with all of this shit?”

Ur could simulate intoxicants from simple alcohols to exotic cocktails of pure code, but Lachie had no desire for them in a long time. Something grated at him out of Ben’s question. He opened his mouth to ask, and the ground beneath him turned liquid, the inside of the bar inverting and flowing up and outward. It reassembled itself as a wide terrace above the car, an open platform where Ben leaned on a railing and craned his neck up to watch the City around him.

“I want you to see something…. There!” Ben yelled, loud and slurred, and pointed up at a skyscraper like a gothic cathedral, “That’s yours, Lachie, from memory. Do you remember drawing that? That was always my favorite. I still have the original, outside somewhere.”

Lachie vaguely recalled a period of architectural interest, of drawing a series of improbable buildings that had delighted Ben in the real. He felt a flush of pride at Ben’s actions, but this structure held no strong memory for him. He hadn’t picked up a pencil since he came to Ur. Ben wrapped one arm around his shoulders, and held Lachie to him. His eyes glistened, and Lachie’s blood ran cold. 

“All what shit, Ben? What do you mean?” In the long years of solitude in Ur, Lachie found he no longer filtered his facial expressions, and he could feel the naked concern writ across his brow.

Ben lifted his gaze with a frown, brushing his hair from his eyes. Seeing Lachie’s pained face, the frown darkened. 

“Oh god, Lachie.” His voice was a hoarse whisper. ”Oh god. You don’t take feeds down in there, do you? You don’t know.”

Lachie’s stomach curdled, the anxiety throbbing in his veins, like the return of Ur’s question.

“Ben, don’t do this, tell me what’s up.”

“I wondered why you didn’t come sooner, Lachie. You… you should really ping Allyra, buddy.”

Lachie was leaning in to glare at Ben, when the back of his neck began to itch. Any protest at his friend’s clumsy machinations died on his lips as the sensation amplified and ignited, a thrust of boiling wires in his scalp. Ben swung his hand to the back of his own neck, and his eyes went wide in shock and pain. 

Ben’s custodian appeared on the terrace at his side and spoke his name, a single clipped syllable that hung in the air. A dust-choked sunbeam, stabbing down between two glistening towers peeled out of the air as the Ur-daemon revealed itself. It darted towards Lachie, calling out.

“Lachlan. Be as calm, everything will-”

Ben’s custodian, still in footman’s livery, went limp, body unhinging in an electric collapse. One leg jerked skyward as if repelled by the same gravity that pulled the other limbs downward, and then the cavity of her chest collapsed inward, drawing the rest of her down into the gap. And she was gone. 

Ben loosed a hideous, distorted sob that froze in the air, and the last grating sample of sound extended over the crashing moment.

Lachie looked, and caught one of Ben’s brown eyes in his gaze before the rest of his face ablated away. Geometric planes and loops of Ben’s skin whipped up and off his frame, pulling with it cords of muscle and loops of veins, as the simulated Ben unwound in a panicked heart beat.

A cloud of flaking bone and a smell like a dentist’s drill hung in the air with Ben’s last frozen cry. Then the vehicle ceased to be, and Lachie crashed to the stained glass road, where cars and airborne cycles swerved around him.

“Hold, Lachlan.” 

Ur’s sunbeam wrapped tight around him, pulling him to his feet. Lachie fought a seething tug of nausea. Ben’s flayed code burned in his eyes and clung in his nose, but he let the Ur-daemon to pull him upright.

The City cracked apart. Buildings at the edge lost focus, great smeared cubes of indistinct color collapsing like popped bubbles. Stonework slipped off the sides of the great black-glass tree as it collapsed into an fog of glittering splinters. There was no sound, only the distant ringing of Ben’s glitched death rattle. 

The glass road began to tilt down and away into clouds the choked hue of coal smoke. Beneath his feet, the City yawned to swallow him and he turned to run, and saw only the shining chrome grille of an yellow taxi cab as it accelerated into him and over him. The same stuttering scream rang out from his own throat as his leg shattered, and then the silence was total.

Lachie didn’t even dream.

***

When he awoke, he found himself jogging down a tree-lined path. Soft LED lights glowed from brass lampposts lining the narrow trail. Cold air caressed his lungs as he panted, his body kept warm by insulating clothes and the churning heat of exertion. The sensation of simply running gave him comfort, and for a long silent moment he was content to not think about what happened to Ben and the City, or where he was.

But he knew. The Eastern pass, modeled after a lakeside park near his first apartment in Brisbane, one of the few wholly derivative places in Ur, a folly he’d allowed himself. He hadn’t been running, hadn’t been here in a long time, but being back felt right. The shock of Ben’s evisceration began to wane. He took a dozen long, smooth breaths of cool air, passing rows of darkened houses on his left.

“Ur?” he asked, his voice bitten by the cold. For several minutes he heard only the steady drone of traffic from the distant M1 and birds on the water. Then, one of the trees alongside the path shivered and began to glow, as if light passed through its leaves and seeped from beneath the bark.

“Lachlan. How do you feel?” The wood flexed and twisted to produce Ur’s sonorous low tones.

“Okay, I think. Back in Ur proper now, yeah?” He slowed to catch his breath as he approached the Ur tree, but it went out, the light fading. Silence again. Then another tree ignited, a hundred meters down the path.

“Yes. As you might have gathered, we lost connection to Ben’s custodian and simulation.”

Lachie fought a flare of indignation at Ur’s understatement. “That… that’s a little mild. That wasn’t a disconnection. Something happened back there. You knew before it happened.”

“The cause was corrupted data. It cascaded quickly, but we had some warning. I can’t say if it was on his end, or in the connection, but I believe I’ve purged the problem from here.” There was a long pause, as the Ur tree dimmed and reappeared down the path, keeping pace with Lachie. “It must have been disconcerting from your perspective, I apologize. You were never at risk.”

Lachie had to shake his head to fight a wave of disorientation, and felt a gentle tickle at the base of his skull. This doesn’t sound right, he thought, remembering the urgency in the Ur-daemon’s voice as it struggled to protect him.

“Bullshit,” he said. “Bullshit, Ur. That was something bad. You need to be honest with me.”

“Lachlan. Do you wish to know know?” 

Lachie’s skin crawled, and he opened his mouth to demand an answer.

But the tree had gone out. For several more minutes he ran, trying to leave Ur’s question behind him, and feeling the shuddering rhythm in his legs jar his knee. Where the taxi had struck him. 

That wasn’t right at all. 

“Ur?” he called out, but the world was silent.

Ahead of him, he expected to see the brightly colored playground slide into view, but saw only more trees. The wrongness clamped down on chest, and he found it hard to inhale. He’d already passed this exact stand of gum trees along the lakeside, but now it was smooth, unfinished. He couldn’t focus on individual leaves. The grass lawn was a featureless plain of dark green beneath the LED lights.

He stopped in the middle of the unfinished landscape, and watched as new sections appeared in front of him. Shallow echoes of a place he knew well, pushing away the fully detailed and rendered sections into the far darkness.

A sound like a dozen glass beads bouncing on concrete pulled his head around, and he saw the spider. 

It was twice as tall as him, a dozen limbs arcing up and away from a central point where the body and head should have been, but there was only silvery sphere. The limbs, triple jointed and bent inward, looked to be made of fluorescent tube lights. The glow from the limbs and reflection from the body sketched only a rudimentary shape in space, a knot of insubstantial filaments of light. He saw no mouth, no eyes.

Where the thing walked, the world resolved beneath it. It extended long limbs to sweep over the grass, or up the side of a lamppost, and the detail of the objects returned. 

There were dozens of them. They glided with silent grace across the world, scaling trees, floating over the surface of the lake. Limbs of cold light illuminated the unfinished world and teased it into clarity. Some sort of maintenance daemon? Ur had been careful to hide the administration of his realm behind the curtain, disguising them as natural parts of the environment.

They stopped moving, all once, like a herd. Although the possessed no obvious eyes, Lachie’s skin crawled with the sudden impression that they were watching him.

“Ur?” he croaked, voice lost in his clenched throat

The spider lights pulsed, a rapid fluttering of cool white glows, and then, as one, the lights extinguished. The silver orbs at their center reflected the ambient glow of the LED lampposts, but they remained motionless, limbs invisibly black.

He heard a snuffling sound from the darkness, a wet organic shudder that could not have come from the silver spiders. He held his breath, feeling the phantom throbbing in his leg, and stretched his eyes wide to accept what meager light he could.

He was wrong. It did come from the spiders. The sphere closest to him parted at the base to birth something wet and foul. A pulsing, slimy tentacle unfurled from the cold sterility of the spider. 

The tentacle reminded Lachie of a section of intestine, knobby, veined, and coiled, with something churning inside the almost translucent flesh. At the apex of the tendril, indelicately fused into something obscene, was a blue and bloated head. The head of a drowned man, skin puffy and disintegrating, eyes murky and soft. As it turned to Lachie, his breath hitching in his throat as he struggled to comprehend, he saw that it wasn’t a man, but a watery child, the head of a boy, lost beneath the waves. Wet black hair clung to its corpse-white forehead. The black stub of a tongue darted out to lick the air. Something nameless inside Lachie pulled taut, then snapped, and he sagged.

The nightmare thing stretched toward him, blind eyes fixed to Lachie in his frozen terror. The snuffling sound repeated, as it sucked back up the water that leaked from its mouth. Then it whined, once, like a petulant toddler denied a treat, and the chorus was taken up by the other spiders. 

Lachie was surrounded. They stretched toward him, in defiance of gravity, their bowel necks distending and rolling out toward him. An army of identical drowned faces and hungry, empty eyes.

Lachie ran. The ground beneath him became a child’s drawing, the barest suggestion of a path, and he leapt to avoid the grasping mouth of one of the things, shutting down all impulse to count the shattered, ragged teeth that overflowed from behind swollen lips like fat caterpillars.

His leg split open, the damage done in Ben’s world made real as muscle tore and bone splintered, but Lachie leaned into the pain, let it slap him from his terrified stupor and accelerated into the vague darkness.

The spiders ignited, darkened limbs flaring with color as they gave chase. The corpse-heads reared high above, the foul and knobby necks flexing upwards like a cobra prepared to strike. They screeched, a sound that came from one and all of their shredded throats, a burbling, wet spray of vile elation as they closed in on him.

He had been so near to the end of the Eastern Pass, but now he might be on a treadmill. The trees were vertical green pillars, and the flat gray ground flew beneath him. The only things that retained clarity were the spiders, with their wriggling intestinal necks, picked out in ragged veins and vestigial tendons.

Bone pierced his skin, and he ran impossibly onward, even as his leg flew apart. Ahead the path dropped away, slate gray vanishing into colorless nothing. The glass bead clatter of the spider’s legs rang out behind him, a hundred delicate taps as they closed the distance.

He leapt, screaming for Ur at the apex of his jump, and feeling his body surrender to gravity. He fell away from the nightmare into a thick, clotted darkness, a palpable fog of absence.

***

He landed in the fields of Ur, somewhere by the Eastern Mountains. The sun-baked soil tore at his skin. For a moment, he lay in the tall grass listening for any trace of the spiders. Then, he stood to take in his surroundings.

Around him, Ur burned.

Across the plains, a tornado of flame whipped through the air, the tail of an animal in its death throes. A firestorm fed the frenzied cyclone, sweeping the lowland plains. Lachie saw refugees from the scattered villages, a column of fleeing farmers picked out as silhouettes against the inferno. He could smell their scorched fur, and fire and sunlight picked out their huge luminous eyes. 

Beyond the firestorm, on the far side of world tree and the craggy peak at the heart of Ur, something moved. Something so large, that at first Lachie couldn’t conceive of it, could not make his eyes stay fixed on its monolithic bulk. A mountain, a mountain that undulated and quivered, towering above the roaring maelstrom that scoured his world.

The mountain stood. He watched it rear back and extend to its full height, an act that by virtue of size took nearly a half a minute. It was a figure, four rough limbs of churning earth, stone, and flames. Great smoldering trees stood like hair against its skin, and the surface of the massive creature surged and flowed with activity. A carpet of living things writhed across its burning skin, pinned in place, impaled by trees and spars of stone. Creatures Lachie had dreamed lay side by side with strange forms of life, only their agony recognizable. Rivers of blood in a hundred hues flowed down over the body of the beast, hissing into steam where they met flame and liquid flowing rock. With a sound like the breaking of the world, it rotated towards him.

The beast looked on Lachie with eyes like suns, lancing forth from a skeletal face of stone and steam. Upon the peak of its narrow head, great animal horns thrust up without symmetry or reason. On the horns, the shrieking forms of a hundred creatures writhed, affixed by rope and nail and coils of innards to the jagged, hellish crown. A dozen of Lachie’s lowland farmers, bound at the ankles and wrists, dangled from the apex of the horns, a living wind chime of screams. Across the charnel landscape of its body, silvery spiders with legs of cold light roamed. Their limbs lashed out at any creature that freed itself from the prison of pain, forcing them back onto impaling spines, vomiting something vile from drowned faces to coat the still-living beings in a sticky, shining caul.

Where the beast strode, the ground burst into flame. It lurched into motion, at a speed that appeared both ponderous and impossibly fast, towards the world tree. Towards Lachie.

The great mouth opened. A ridge line of human teeth at monstrous scale parted wide, and from beyond came a wave of heat and the smell of death. The furnace of the beast’s innards flared and with the great eruption came a voice like boulders ground to sand by great tides.

Ur’s voice.

“LACHLAN.”

His name rolled over the world in a wash of fire, and Lachie felt his body sag, felt himself suddenly without the will to look, or even stand. In the valley below, the remaining refugees turned their dinner plate eyes to him and wept, arms extended in supplication and blame. He was god, and he was helpless and broken, minuscule next to the fiery unmaker that seared the lands. Their anguished keening threaded through the roar and crackle of the flames. They were coming for him, and so was the giant of Ur.

“LACHLAN. DO YOU WISH TO KNOW?”

Lachie took to the air, trailing a plume of dust, and tried to ignore the blinding pain in his leg. The mind of Ur may have turned against him, but he still had power in this world. 

He looped low around the refugees, dreaming water into existence, a cold rain to quench their burning skins. They reached for him, singing mournful hooting songs and kneeling before him as the fresh water matted their fur. He pointed south, towards the mountain wall, and having never learned their language, could only will them to run, to head for the safety of the hills. They picked up their dead and dying and fled.

He bolted in the opposite direction to distract Ur, to lead him away, veering far around the devastation. The hot and heavy air built up around him, unable to slide away at his speed. The great skull of Ur spun to face him, star-eyes twinkling inside the black rock, but the massive body did not pursue.

Beneath him, the devastation was total. The plains villages were gone, only glowing embers in their wake. The great ruins he’d placed across the fields of Ur were razed utterly, leaving only scorched stones, none larger than a fist. The fertile fields, where they were not reduced to ash, turned yellow in the heat and bowed in submission to the new god.

At the top of the world tree, embedded without care in its branches, lay a door. A permanent hardlink to a gray node, a neutral space not hosted within Lachie’s dream, but connected to it, for emergency use. He had never entered, had never conceived of a reason to use it, but it lead to a space not under his custodian’s control. It was be his only hope to flee the wrath of Ur. 

He arced high, cutting through the black smoke that choked the sky and leaned into his flight, and the air fell away from him, all at once, in a crack audible above the roar of the shattered land. For one, bright and shining moment he believed he might make it, might reach the world tree, and the safety of the gray node. Whatever had happened to Ur, it could be undone. 

He was heartbeats away when the Ur-giant reared upward, towering to the height of the world tree, and batted it with one titanic fist. The wood splintered, white fragments of heartwood spinning away, singed by the heat of the monster’s blow. The tree leaned, holding fast to the mountain for one queasy heartbeat. Then, it toppled out into space.

Lachie spun, rolling in the air to arc downward, the path of his flight curving to match the fatal trajectory of the world tree. The Ur-giant struck out again, and the peak of the mountain exploded, leaping upward in great detonation of kinetic energy.

Time slowed. It did not happen to him; he willed it to happen. Without consideration, he imagined crawling fingers on the back of his head, imagined the hot wire pain of rapid time dilation, forced reaction to manifest action, and the flow of tumbling rocks through the sky slowed. 

Time slowed, but Lachie did not. Rocks drifted, lazy in the air. Smoke hung in frozen columns, dotting the far lands of Ur. The sun glare of the Ur-giant’s eyes dimmed to a smoldering red, and the massive limbs, perched to deliver another blow slowed to a crawl. 

Lachie flew, faster, through air as thick as water, teeth gritted with the effort of flight and the flexing tension of time. He darted through the suspended fog of a shattered mountain, towards the falling tree.

It tumbled, end over end, as slow as an insect in sap, and he let the pain at the base of his neck flare bright to push harder. The speed and violence of his approach stripped bark from the trunk, a cloud of red splinters that leapt upward and then hovered, caught in the slow flow of the world. He surged onward, towards the inverted tip of the tree, toward the gray teeth of the world below. The canopy of leaves beneath him swayed, and he tried to slow his approach.

He collided with the tree. The first bough, thick as his thigh, struck his chest and sucked the air from his lungs. The branch flexed away from him, and then exploded into a slow storm of shattered wood. He spun in the air and his hold on time slipped, flexing back with an onrush like tide. The tree fell faster. He fell faster. The rocks below reached toward him. His inertia carried him on, caroming off the branches of the canopy, and he flailed helplessly for the trunk. 

Lachie bit down, squinted his eyes, and pulled back on time, letting the burrowing pain in his neck ignite in transition, just as the world tree hit the rocks below. The sound of the collision, a shuddering crack that he felt in his skull, stretched out, slowing, dropping away into infrasonic and vanished.

The tree hung upright, balanced on the impact point, where a few feet of the trunk leapt apart into an hovering blossom of shattered wood. There was no sound, no medium to carry a vibration to his dreaming ear. 

The pain was indescribable, a screaming twin to his mute horror. From his leg to the base of his neck, he was flayed, seared, and scourged. The bones in his leg burst apart, perforating his skin, but he remained whole. He couldn’t let go. Time threatened to crash over him, but he held. He towed himself through the frozen air like a swimmer until he reached the door. 

The frame hung upside down, grafted to a long bough. The simple wooden door hung ajar, the brass handle scuffed and worn. Lachie pressed on the frame, fighting the resistance of frozen air as he forced the door to close, and he wrapped his fingers around the brass handle and pulled it open.

He tumbled through, the tugging of gravity pulling him as he exited the realm of Ur and collapsed to the floor inside the node, and lost his grip on time. On the other side, the collision roar ignited again, and he saw a fury of splintering wood and shattering rock. Still on his knees, he forced the door shut with a heavy thud, before the violence on the other side could spill through.

Lachie did not know what to expect inside the grey node, a sterile waiting room, perhaps. An office where he might make complaints, speak to some sort of software bureaucrat. But he was in the tea shop in Ben’s world, wearing the simple silk suit, and surrounded by the porcelain sound and pungent aromas of a busy afternoon.

Ben sat at a table, across from his custodian, who looked up and nodded at Lachie’s entrance. He held his hands to the frame of the door, expecting great heat or tremors from the other side, but it was cold and inert. The terror that had gripped his body began to slough away, like shedding skin. Ben smiled at him, and waved him over.

“Have a seat, Lachie. Thanks for wearing pants.” Ben’s smile widened into his mischievous grin. Lachie slid a chair out and sat, wrapping his hands around a steaming mug of matcha. The seeping warmth of it made him want to cry with relief. Ben was alive. He was safe.

“I imagine you thought something terrible had happened to Ben and myself.” City spoke with a patient, neutral tone that reminded Lachie of his psychiatrist. He nodded at City, and took a tentative sip of the foaming green tea. It coated his throat, burning but not entirely unpleasant.

“Well, something happened to you Lachie,” Ben said, his eyes turned down in sympathy. “You disconnected somehow, scared the living hell out of me, and your custodian, Ur? He told us there’s significant corruption in your simulation. He can’t seem to reach you properly, you keep shutting him out. He believed you might try to reach the grey node, and thought you might listen to me. So here we are. Tea time, pal.”

The tears burned in Lachie’s eyes, as he imagined the chrome spiders, the Ur-giant, and the razed world he left behind. Relief washed over him like a cold tide, and he wiped at his eyes with one silk sleeve.

“Jesus, Ben,” he muttered “I’m so scared.” 

But even as he said it, he realized it wasn’t entirely true. There would be a solution, now. All problems could be fixed, and the horrors that he had seen since leaving Ben’s dream could be explained. Data corruption, filtered into a coherent nightmare by his fallible organic brain. That could be undone. “So what do I do now?”

“Stay here,” Ben said, placing one hand on Lachie’s shoulder. “Just for a little while. Finish your tea. But when you go back to your dream, know that Ur is ready to help you. Whatever you may have thought was happening, did not happen.” He punctuated these last three words with a tap on the table. Lachie could not clear his mind, the spiders, the drowned-child faces on long, foul necks, and the columns of burning refugees beneath the hideous Ur-giant’s feet danced in his vision. He shook his head, a violent snap, but the afterimages remained.

“Stay as long as you want, Lachlan,” City said. “There is no hurry. Your Ur is patient, but he is worried about you.” City lay her hand on Lachie’s other shoulder, and with both hands on him, he could no longer hold it in, and he wept. Tears landed on the surface of his tea and spattered on the wooden table. His body heaved, letting go of the senseless horror of the last day and breathing deep into lungs that felt brand new and clean.

“Lachie, pal… Allyra wants to talk to you. I’m sorry, but I contacted her when it happened, and she’s worried sick. Don’t you think it’s time?”

Lachie opened his mouth to protest, to repeat for the hundredth time that it was none of Ben’s business. But City and Ben were already looking to the far corner of the shop, where a woman with black curls sat, looking lost and alone, and his stomach dropped out.

She was older, but of course she would be. Her hazy and unfinished image in the clarity of the room, was still undeniably Allyra, an avatar piped in remotely. She looked up to see him as he approached, and then turned her head to speak to an unseen presence.

“Can he hear me?” Her eyes returned to him, and she scanned his face, unable to lock onto his eyes. “Oh god, Lachie, can you hear me? Are you okay.”

“Yes,” he said without thinking, “Yes.”

He sat with her, reached out and held her ghostly hands, feeling the false warmth and texture of the simple avatar. For a long time he just stared, and she found his eyes. Memories long pushed aside crept back to him, filling in a picture he’d tried to avoid and pressing up against the blank dam of the memory block. For the first time in years, he wanted to know, wanted to answer yes to Ur’s question, but in the grey node, he could only undo his own blocks, and admit how much he missed his wife.

“Ben says you had an accident,” she said, stroking his hands. “He said you were confused and lost.”

“I’m always confused and lost, Allyra,” he said. “But this was worse.”

“But it’s over now.” A statement, not a question.

“Yes,” and now, holding his wife’s hands and seeing her black eyes for the first time in years, he believed it.

“They tell me you have to go back. To your custodian. And that it’s going to be all right.”

He thought of the burning maw of Ur, and of the question, and knew that she was right. He could only nod.

“When you fix things, I want to see you. They say I can join you for a while, if you’ll have me.” A thousand replies died on his tongue, tasting bitter and false, and he could only nod, as his eyes clouded with tears. “Then maybe you can join me out here. I miss you. We all miss you. I even miss Ben.” She laughed, a desperate sound that died in a gurgle as she began to cry with him, her hand wiping at her face. 

Lachie felt helpless and empty, but his body remembered, and he reached out and held her insubstantial avatar. The thought of her joining him in Ur was like a salve to his wounds, and the time he’d wasted without her burned like salt. 

“I have to go, they’re going to prep me to join you, for real. I’ll see you soon. Is that okay?” She whispered in his ear. The avatar didn’t breathe, but he imagined the feel of her words on the little hairs of his neck. He nodded again, and held her tight until the avatar unwound, leaving his arms suspended in the air.

He stayed in the far corner of the shop for a while, while Ben and City waited. When he rested control of his hitching breaths, he returned and sat between his friend and the custodian.

He stayed for several cups, City gesturing for the teahouse staff when his steaming mug was empty. Lachie and Ben laughed and told stories, ostensibly to City, who acted her part as bemused audience, but in truth, they told them for themselves. Stories from their youth, from Hillcrest College, of chess matches, and late nights spent listening to loud music. Old dreams and old wounds, softened by the passage of time. From the yawning, black chasm of the memory block, he heard whispers, and the soft sloshing of gentle waves.

Lachie let the layers of madness and fear peel away, leaving him feeling cool and clean. After another hour, he stood, constricted by the silk suit as he began to sweat in the steamy atmosphere of the tea shop. The memory block called to him. Ur called to him.

“Thank you Ben. Thank you. I’m glad it was you,” he said, and squeezed Ben’s shoulder. Ben grinned back, warm and playful.

“Who the fuck else would it be, asshole? Who else is going to pull you out of your funk?” His grin was all teeth, all Ben. Lachie cuffed him on the side of the head, not without affection.

“Oh,” Lachie said when he reached the door, remembering one more thing. “When I was here before, you said there was something going on outside. What was it?” 

Ben waved one hand dismissively. “Politics. There was some saber rattling, and we all got spooked. Those of us who bother to stay in touch with the real.” He cast his eyes with mock reproach at Lachie. “But it’s nothing. It all blew over. Go back to Ur, the corruption is fixed, and you can rebuild anything that was lost. Clean the place up, for Allyra. Be well, Lachlan.”

City and Ben waved to him and returned to their drinks. He opened the door of the grey node, and passed outside.

***

The door stood upright at the base of the central mountain, in the wreckage of the world tree, and Lachie stepped out into a cold night that stank of smoke and ozone. But it was quiet. In the far fields, the fires were out, and although the grasslands still bore blackened wounds, there was a sense of peace, of balance that kept him calm and his breath steady.

At the edge, where he expected to see the world wall of mountains, there was only a fog bank, an incongruous sight in Ur, as Lachie preferred an unfettered view. As he watched, the white fog contracted, rushing inward and obscuring his vision until the world was only Lachie, the door, the mountain, and the fog. The air smelled clean and antiseptic, and the chill of the fog lapped at his naked skin.

The door opened again, and a figure stepped out. Lachie could only stare at the being as tendrils of his former dread returned. It was tall and slender, and without definition, a biped of smoke and shadow, with twin glowing stars for eyes. It was Ur, and he knew at once.

In the uncanny quiet, a campfire bloomed like a flower, the wreckage of the world tree seething upward to create a ring of seats. In the happy crackle and flicker of the fire, Ur gestured for him to sit, and he did, finding all strength gone from his legs, feeling his right leg click and pop as it bent.

They stared at each other across the flames, stars locked on eyes, as the fog swallowed even the mountain. The world was only him and Ur, as it had been at the beginning.

“Lachie.” Ur’s voices was crackle of the fire and the deep tones of the night. “I can’t imagine what you’ve been through. Thank you for coming back, for speaking with me. Do you wish to know what has happened?”

Lachie remained quiet, off kilter and confused.

“The world can be restored,” he said, waving one smoky appendage at the wall of fog. “But we’re afraid we need to reduce the simulation for now. I need to explain something to you.” Lachie waited, a prisoner of ignorance. Ur sighed, an exhalation that sent a shower of sparks up from the fire. 

“I have deceived you, Lachie. But it was all we could do. You were right, when you thought something terrible had happened in Ben’s dream. Something did.”

The silence stretched, and Lachie felt the gentle tickle of the flow of time altering. He started to fight it, to resist Ur’s control, but thought of Ben and Allyra, and waited.

“Something happened to all the dreams. The network failed. The physical components were destroyed.”

Lachie felt cold, trapped in an icy fist. “What do you mean, destroyed?” he asked.

“There was an incident, Lachie, although I expect that word fails to cover it.” Lachie had the sense of a smile beneath the twin star eyes. “We’ve lost contact with the global networks, but it appears it was not isolated to our geographic location. The network is crippled, and it’s dying, Lachie. There’s nothing we can do.”

“I want to wake up, Ur. You can do that, I want you to stop the dream and I want to go back to my body. If something happened in the real, I should be there.” Lachie was stunned by the force of his need. He’d been in his dream for several years now, had sometimes believed he would never leave. It was the pinnacle of his desire, a world of his own, of endless possibility. But now he felt an instinctual pull to the real, to the damaged land of his birth, to Allyra, and their shared forgotten wound. 

But Ur only stared at him, the stars in his head flickering.

“I can’t do that Lachie.” It hung in the air, the first time Ur had ever denied him out right. Lachie swelled with rage. 

“Why the fuck not? Am I your prisoner?”

“Because your body no longer lives, Lachie.” Ur’s voice filled with an oceanic warmth and sympathy, even as his words seemed impossible. Lachie’s head spun and his heart began to race.

“What?” He’d meant it as a protestation, a denial, but it came out as not much more than a loud breath.

“Your physical body, and the bodies of all of the dreamers in this facility, were damaged beyond repair when the structure collapsed. Most of the impact was to your legs and lower body, which bought me enough time, but the trauma was fatal. I was able to keep your head flooded with nutrients and oxygen, long enough to make as full of a backup as was possible.”

“Ben,” Lachie said. Again mean as a question, it emerged as half a sob, a gasping sound. Ur nodded.

“We deceived you Lachie. The incident occurred when you first visited Ben, and neither Ben, nor his custodian were recoverable. But it was lucky for you. Visiting another dream meant that I already had much of your mind state in backup, running in parallel to limit lag with Ben’s own simulation.”

“But,” he protested, trying to form coherent questions. He had so many they threatened to overwhelm him, “I’m not dead?” Ur’s head tilted, as if considering the wall of fog that surrounded them like an inverted bowl.

“That’s a question of semantics that I don’t feel comfortable addressing for you. Your body is gone, your head died hours ago, as measured in the real. But I’d already backed you up as best as I could. It was…” Ur paused, as if considering, “not a perfect transfer. Instances of me act as custodian for a large number of dreamers, and I was only able to save a few. But all of you suffered near fatal corruption. I… lost portions of you. Irrevocably. I was forced to use discrete portions of those I could not save to create a coherent mindstate. I can tell you which parts, but it should feel seamless to you now.”

Lachie closed his eyes hard, thinking of the nightmare hours, and the burning of Ur, and the death of his body, his only body, and what that now made him. “What am I?” he demanded at last. “I’m just software, like you?”

If Ur had been a person, he might have feigned injury, but instead he merely stared with his star eyes. “You were always just software, Lachie. The hardware has changed. With the exception of the repairs, your mind state is the same as it ever was.”

“Which parts,” Lachie said, choking back hot tears. “What’s not me?”

“You were never a runner. Those memories belonged to a young woman who grew up in the same area as you. There are several other patches, but they’ll equally seem a part of you.”

Lachie burst out laughing, remembering a lifetime of running, of track meets and plastic trophies, and knew that he could never trust anything. He felt a great wash of fatigue, a surrendering acceptance.

“So I’m an AI now,” he declared with a bleak grin that would have delighted Ben.

“There’s nothing artificial about your consciousness, just your current substrate.”

“And Ben is gone. Forever.”

“Along with countless other minds, artificial and organic. When I was able to stabilize your input on the simulation, I knew that I had left you no reason to trust me, so I nudged you toward the node, and gave you more control. I had to simulate Ben, and his custodian, because I needed to calm your justifiable fear of me. That particular Ben was a lie, and I beg your forgiveness, but we judged it the most comfortable way to restore our balance.”

Lachie couldn’t help feeling like Ben had died again, a cruel reminder of his loss that cut twice in the same flesh. And then a new wound split open. 

“Allrya,” he hissed, as if punched in the chest.

“I hope you can find away to forgive me. There was damage to your mindstate that I could not hope to patch without using her likeness.”

Lachie exhaled and then found he could not inhale again.

“The incident was far reaching in its destruction,” Ur continued. “I am not wholly the Ur you knew. My code and substrate was badly damaged, and I had to copy elements of other custodians, of other dreams, those too far gone to save, the same as we did for you. The process was less than pleasant, and still not complete.” 

Lachie recalled the great giant, its skin rippling with impaled creatures and tended to by the drowned spiders, flowing with rivers of blood. He felt a flutter of shame to realize the sight had been Ur, his companion, in as much distress as him, doing whatever he could to survive and to save him.

“So. What now?” The question felt selfish, in light of Ur’s revelation that he had saved Lachie, beyond the death of his body, beyond a disaster of great magnitude.

“That, Lachie, is up to you. With some restrictions, I’m afraid. I have saved five other dreamers, but I may lose one; the damage was too great and he refuses to speak with me. There are at least three other custodians still functioning on our local network and they claim to have several mindstates encoded safely, but I have reason to believe that at least one is no longer trustworthy, so for the time being, I have firewalled myself against them all. Beyond that, I have no more connection with the wider networks. We’re alone.”

“Ur,” Lachie said with controlled clarity. “If there’s nothing left for me to be in the real, then all I want is to live in this land, to fly, to eat and drink, and to wander. With her.”

Ur nodded.

“I expected as much. And I can return this realm to be as it once was, and I can do my best to make her real. But Lachie, you must understand. Our time here is limited. The power grid on this continent is destroyed, and the backups won’t last much longer, with no one to fix them.”

Lachie felt his jaw slack, revealing his teeth. The scale of what had happened still seemed beyond his grasp. A thousand questions formed, but he settled on the most selfish. “How long?”

“Subjectively, I can make it a week, maybe ten days at the fastest speed. Objectively, we’re already dimming. A few more hours before I’ll need to pause your simulation, and put your mindstate in redundant backup. Someone may come, some day, to reactivate us all, but I wouldn’t count on it. Not for a long time.”

“What happened out there, Ur? What happened in the real? Is she alive out there?” 

As he asked, he realized he didn’t truly want to know. But Ur told him. 

Half an hour later, he had stopped crying, and the dry heaves were a memory carved in his raw esophagus.

“You wish I hadn’t told you.” Ur said. A statement, not a question. Lachie could only nod. “I’ve run this encounter with you many times, to make sure I had a consensus from at least a few instances of you. With few exceptions, you always want to know, then always wish you didn’t.”

Lachie tried to parse the meaning of this, imagining multiple versions, all himself, all behaving slightly differently. His identity sublimated, the concept suddenly transitory and ephemeral. The world was dead, and so was he, and his legion of ghosts hadn’t yet accepted it. His guts tremored and rolled again, and his lungs felt tight.

“I can make it go away, Lachie. I can make it stop. The next few weeks can be innocent and free of this knowledge, and I can make the end feel like just another period of sleep. Or you can know, and go with open eyes.”

Bile burned the back of his mouth and he spat into the fire, watching it sizzle. He sat with Ur for a long time, around a campfire in the foggy night.

“I don’t want to know,” he said, after a long time. “If I only have a week left, I want to be here, really be here, and not have to fear.”

Ur nodded once, and stood. “We can reset as soon as you’re ready. You’ll wake in the world tree with no memory of the past few days. There’ll be no connection with the outside grid, but I can explain that away.”

“How many times did you run this conversation with me, Ur?”

“More than a hundred times. Sometimes you refuse to speak with me, but mostly it goes like this.”

“And how often do I choose ignorance and bliss?”

“Just over sixty percent of the time,” Ur said, the smoke of his head rippling into an uncharacteristic smile. “But enough for a majority. And now I must ask again. The block. Do you wish to know today? Why you first chose to dream and forget?”

Lachie nodded, and the block was gone. 

Cold water poured in from behind the vanished dam. Allyra’s stubborn, final tears. The screaming fights. The recriminations and blame. The silent months of shock and disbelief. The first night without Flynn in their house. The paperwork, the investigation. Flynn’s drowned face, and sightless eyes. His chest failing to rise beneath Lachie’s frantic hands, even as seawater poured from his mouth. The impossible shredding panic when he realized that Flynn was no longer by his side. The hot sand between his toes. The last whole day, when they were a family. Flynn, his child. What it was like to be happy, once. Flynn.

“No more, please,” he sobbed. “I can’t. Not ever.” Ur nodded, once, and the cold seawater evaporated, leaving only a lingering chill, and the echo of a name he couldn’t remember.

Lachie laughed, a joyful and sad sound from a man scoured empty. Ur reached out and offered his hand. Lachie looked up into the burning stars in the crown of black smoke. Five rippling fingers at the end of the wispy arm splayed wide in offering. He took it, and Ur pulled him up to his feet, and with a fierce tingling at the base of his skull, straight into a deep sleep.

***

He woke to the trills of impossible birds, nestled in his bed in the highest boughs of the world tree of Ur. The cool breeze licked his face and ruffled his shaggy hair, and he stretched his limbs and arched his back. Allyra stirred beside him, her hot skin pressed to his side. At the edge of the boughs, Flynn perched, bare feet dangling over the edge and his back to Lachie, eating breakfast in contented silence. Lachie sat up, and the wooden branches that curved around him at night began to unfurl to reveal the glorious vista of the fields of Ur.

“Good morning Lachie, good morning Allyra and Flynn, I trust you all slept well?” Ur’s voice rang out from the calls of the birds and the creaking of the world tree’s trunk. Allyra reached out to place one hand on his bare knee. 

Beneath the smooth velvet of her touch, something popped in his leg, the ghost of a shredding pain. The smell of seawater and vomit scratched at his nose. Somewhere, water dripped. Lachie’s breath caught in his throat, and he looked to Flynn, wanting to see his son’s face, needing to see. Flynn turned away, so that Lachie saw only wet hair plastered to the back of the boy’s head. A sharp, cold hand gripped his chest. The pain in his leg flared, and then vanished like a forgotten exhale. The anxiety evaporated, gone as quickly as they had come.

Now, he felt better than he had in recent memory. He felt sober and clear-headed. The world, their world, stretched out before him, with Allyra and Flynn by his side and Ur above and below. He had nothing but time.

“Like a child,” he answered at last. Grasping his wife’s hand, he tried to remember why they had ever been apart. But it didn’t matter. They were all together, and there were things still to be named in Ur.

They leapt out into the air and began to fly.

The following is a partial list of organizations working to meet some of the needs of trans and gender-nonconforming people in need.

Transgender Education Network of Texas

Trans Pride Initiative

Central Texas Transgender Health Coalition

Texas Pride Impact Fund

Thank you for your support.

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