Sitting in the shade and relative cool of his yurt, the vulture keeper realized he had company. Someone was walking back and forth in the blaze of light and heat outside. The keeper hadn’t heard a camel, and anyone crossing the waste on foot–well, they’d be crawling by now, if they were still moving at all. Which left only one possibility.
“If you’re here to haunt,” said the keeper, “save yourself the aggravation. I’ve got wards. Ground ’round here’s full of quartz, so they’ll hold.”
“I’m just,” said a voice like a sigh, “here to talk.”
“Don’t particularly want to talk,” said the vulture keeper. He went back to tuning his zither.
“You have something of mine,” said the ghost. “Or you will, when your flock returns.”
The keeper strummed and made his answer into a little tune. “Whatever they bring back, it’s something of mine.”
“It’s a particularly valuable stone,” said the ghost.
The keeper worked a troublesome string. “That’s what I deal in: carbuncles (twang), snake stones (twang) — any brain stone my vultures find (twang) and you wizards will buy.” (twa-ng-ng-ng)
“I need you to deliver it to my heir-apprentice,” said the ghost, “in the hidden city of Ar-Zellekan.”
“I’m semi-retired. Only go as far as the caravanserai. Don’t go to cities, even ones I can find.” The keeper had tuned the last of the strings. “Give up and move on, little wisp. Like the priests say: rise up as rain and come down again in the Afterworld.”
“My enemies will pay the merchants ten times its worth to kill you and take it.”
The keeper stopped his strumming. “That seems…” he said, “unnecessarily harsh.”
“The stone will bond with you by the time you reach the settlements,” said the ghost. “They won’t be able to use it with you alive.”
“My retirement’s getting shorter either way, although…” the keeper reached into his pocket for a zither pick, “this isn’t my first retirement.”
The keeper strummed a complicated tune.
“You were a wizard, weren’t you?”
“Wizard-king. Nearly wizard-emperor,” said the keeper. “Had the skill; lacked the power.” He stilled the zither’s strings. “Guess that won’t be a problem much longer. Just hope your heir knows some good war-spells.”
“He’s a pacifist,” said the ghost, “like all our people. Perhaps I’ve exaggerated the stone’s power.”
“A hidden city would make a fine capital,” said the keeper.
“The stone’s strong, but not that strong,” said the ghost. “Nothing special. Nevermind.” He blew away with the next breeze.
“Good,” said the keeper, and returned to his zithering.

Transmission Log 8074: Tweetie username @4armpuppeteer

O’Brien? Are you out there? Goddamn it, man, first thing happens after I arrive is I get beaten up. #notmyideaofavacation

Seriously, I’m at the meetup point. Reply or DM me ASAP. This place makes my skin itch. #grimeandurbandecayasdermalinfection

I fkn hate only having two arms in this altuniv, but both of them are shooting middle fingers at you right now. #sopissedicouldkickapuppy

You’d better have some whiskey as a peace offering. Christ, I could use a drink. #WeAreTheAggregate

I mean, is it so much to ask that your operatives use — hey wait, I didn’t write that hashtag. #AreYouReceivingCommunication

WTF is happening? O’Brien, zat you? Are you hacking my fkn Tweetie acct? #WeAreTheAggregate #AreYouReceivingCommunication

Um, yes? #CommunicationReceivedAndUnderstood #ContactCommencing #TranslationProtocolsInitiated #NeuralInterlinkTransmittedAsText

What? #ContactDesignateIdentityConfirm #AreYouVahidNabizadeh

How did you get my name? Who the hell is this? #WeAreTheAggregate

And who is The Aggregate? #TheAggregateIsACollectiveHigherDimensionalIntelligenceSeekingSafeHarbour

And what the hell does that mean? #ThatWeAreFleeingABurnedUniverse #OurKindExistsOnlyAsInformation #OurHomeHasBeenDestroyed

You’re shitting me, right? #ColloquialismUnknown #WeRequireCorporealForm #WeSeekSafeHarbour #WillYouHelp

How can I believe any of this? Your hashtag hacking could be an elaborate prank. Why the hell did you pick me anyway? What did I do?

Well? #ScansIndicateTesseractTransference #YouAreNotFromThisAltUniv #NeitherAreWe #ThusProbabilitySuggestsOpennessToAidUs

How could you possibly know I was sent here by the Tesseract Project? #TechnologyIsFullyIntegratedIntoOurselves #WeAreAdvanced #WillYouHelp

Look, I still don’t buy it. Even if you’re truthing me, how could I help? I need aid myself. #ADownloadOfOurMatrixIntoYourCorporealForm

You’d download into me? I don’t like the sound of that one bit. #ButYouWillBeAugmentedNotOverwritten #TheJoiningWillBenefitAll #WillYouHelp

Sorry, anonymous aggregate. Nothing doing. I’m closing this account now. I’ll have to contact O’Brien another way. #YouAreMakingAMistake

Maybe. I do that sometimes. Bye now. #YouCannotEscapeUs #WeCanGoAnywhere #WeAreTheAggregate #NowhereInTheMultiverseIsSafe

#YouWillHelpUs #TheAggregateDemandsAnAnswer #WeAreLegion #WeAreForever #WeWillTakeOnPhysicalForm #WeWillTakeThisAltUnivByForce

#ContactDesignateIdentityVahidNabizadeh #AreYouReceivingCommunication #AreYouReceivingCommunication #AreYouReceivingCommunication


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This piece is just one in a 23-part linked narrative called Fragile, which will take a liberal interpretation of the song titles (but not the lyrics) of the masterful Nine Inch Nails double-album The Fragile. To read the other chapters in this series, click on the category “Fragile” below.

Jake had been here before. He had held Susan’s hand just like this, right here. More than deja vu–certainty. They crossed the marble floor to examine the cherubim statue, each foot falling in the anticipated place. He knew what Susan was going to say.

“I think we should see other people.”

Wait. That wasn’t right.

He turned to look at her, but she was gone.

Jake had been here before. He and Susan had shared margaritas on this roof deck before. He was talking about minimalism, about what shit it was, and then he realized–they weren’t seeing each other any more. But she was holding his hand…

A man was looking at them. Jake couldn’t make out his face. Shadowed. He walked up to them, took Susan’s hand.

“I think you should see other people,” he said.

Jake had been here before. But Susan had been right there, right next to him, suggesting a gondola ride. Her absence was palpable, as if a bubble had just popped.

He pressed a hand to his temples. A migraine was building. He looked up and, there, looking at him: a man–face shadowed. He was unfamiliar here but Jake recognized him. He pushed into the crowds but the man was gone.

Jake stood in his apartment. Here, familiarity made sense. Except there had been photos of Susan, hadn’t there? He went to her closet. Her clothes were gone. In the kitchen half the fridge was empty. Half its contents erased.

A sound from the living room. He got there in time to see a man’s familiar figure slipping out of the door. He is not quick enough in his pursuit.

Jake stood in a shopping mall. He did not recognize this place. Why would he be in a shopping mall? Why would he have roses in his hand? He had no memory of buying them.

The migraine was intense now, rising like a tidal wave. Blackness rising behind his eyes.

Jake came round on the psi-surgeon’s couch. There was a sharp pain behind his brows.

“The headache should fade in ten minutes or so,” the surgeon said, removing steel apparatus. “It’s perfectly normal.” He sat back from Jake, out of the light, his face lost in shadow.

And despite the pain, Jake smiled. A success. Susan, the relationship, everything, it was already fading. Already it was just a dream.

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