“What are you talking about?”

Sharon tightened her grip on the handset. “You mean you didn’t know someone named Paul Phillips? Someone who passed away about six months ago?”

“No,” the voice on the other end said airily. “Why would I?”

“What about…’millerpond1987?'” Sharon said, mind racing. “I think that was my brother’s screen name.”

“I don’t know anyone with a screen name like that,” said the girl.

“Are you sure? You were on all his contact lists…I even read some of the emails that he sent you!”

“No,” Umbriel said. “This is just too creepy for me…I’m going to hang up now.”

“Wait..!” Sharon received only a dialtone in reply, and slammed the receiver back into its cradle.

Legend has it that the Saudeleur grew to resent the power of his nahnken, who wielded power absolute over their own weis but were bound to give tribute to their lord and master. And so it was that the idea of Nan Madol came to the Saudeleur in a dream: a great city of stone islands, where the nahnken and their saudeleur would reside. He could keep an eye on them by controlling the boats that plied the stone islands and even keep an escape tunnel ready under the coral to the edge of the reef should his overthrow be imminent.

Thus bound and determined, the Saudeleur had a problem. Though the isle of Ponape had stone and coral aplenty for quarrying, it lacked the manpower to move the stones once they had been hewn. It was to this end that the Saudeleur sought out the magician Isokelekel, who lived in seclusion on the north of the island. Isokelekel, said to be the son of a woman from the isle of Kusaie and the thunder god Daukatau, had sworn to hold himself and his powers separate from other men. But the Saudeleur prevailed upon him, and Isokelekel agreed to move the stones as the Saudeleur saw fit, breaking his vow.

Knowing that to do so would anger his father Daukatau, Isokelekel extracted from the Saudeleur three promises which would secure the magician’s future. First, Isokelekel asked for the Saudeleur’s totem of Nahnisohn Sahpw, the god of agriculture; his request was granted. Second, Isokelekel asked for the Saudeleur’s throne…in 1000 years. The Saudeleur readily agreed to this condition, thinking such a promise impossible to enforce. Third, Isokelekel asked for the isle of Ponape itself…in 2000 years. Again, the Saudeleur agreed to what he saw as a mere flight of fancy.

True to his word, Isokelekel used his powers to move rock and coral to build the magnificent canal city of Nan Madol. He then vanished with the Saudeleur’s totem, never to be seen again. One thousand years later, a man claiming the name Isokelekel led a band of 333 rebels to topple a corrupt and decadent descendant of the Saudeleur, founding a dynasty that lasted until the pale men in boats arrived 900 years later.

Of the last promise the Saudeleur made Isokelekel, nothing was heard…until now.

“I think…I think you might be right,” I said. “I also think I might be going crazy.”

“What if you’re not?” she asked.

That night, I resolved to see for myself. Fortified on the flights of fancy I’d seen during the day, I felt like a book, open and ready. Not to be read, but destined for something entirely unexpected. To be bronzed, maybe—a book made statue. Or perhaps to have flowers pressed between the pages—my pages—each leaving a mark upon and changing the other.

It was all easy enough. Reach up, grab, pull down. The tearing sounded much as you’d expect it to.

On the other side?

Stars. The corner of Leighton and Burrick, downtown. A dusty old gas station with a sign in Arabic. A city growing out of a vast, purple forest canopy. All at once, in a rush like a breaking wave.

So I stepped out—just for a moment. There’s something to be said for Myra’s paper-thin membrane, wrapping the everyday into a neat brown package. There’s something to be said for seeing only what you can perceive and nothing more.

But for now, I was content to skate among planetary rings in the arm of a distant spiral galaxy, to pirouette on a molten surface all but consumed in a solar corona, to break upon far-distant shores thrilling with every undulation.

I was stepping out. I’d be back—but I wouldn’t ever be the same. Myra would be proud, wherever she was.

It was called “The Game of the Dreaming.”

Every autumn, when the first leaf fell in the Xia Valley, the masters of the local school would open the tournament and many would respond to their call, from all corners of the Empire. The Xia tournament was far from ordinary, however, which led considerably to its allure.

The masters would go out at midsummer to the nearby mountain, returning after a week’s absence with strange purple flowers that no one who lived in the area could ever recall seeing in the wild. Ground up, fermented, and placed into ornate bottles, the flower draught was the centerpiece of the tournament. A special arena in the form of a labyrinth with an open top was maintained at the school; competitors would quaff the flower draught and then enter, seeking a plain clay pot placed at the center.

Spectators would watch as the champions, many of them accomplished martial artists, ran about wildly, screaming, fighting invisible spirits, and otherwise acting in ways most unbecoming. For the challenge was not one of mere strength but rather mental and spiritual fortitude. The flower draught would inflame the mind with fantastic visions, veiling the world of the real and reducing the strongest of men to gibbering wrecks in the face of torments only they could see.

Xuan Li entered the 217th Xia Valley Tournament as its last entrant, arriving only hours before it began.

It would be the last such tournament the valley would ever see.

The Company had set Davis up in a hovel, a house on the very edge of Kariton that had been for rent by the day, fully furnished. The town didn’t have a hotel, or even a motel–too small–but the suits weren’t willing to pay for a car and gas to get to Heysley, a half-hour away and the closest polity resembling a city.

From what Davis had been able to tell, Kariton functioned much as it had before becoming a Company test market. People came and went all day using the mass-transit teleporters just like a city bus, resorting to their personal cars only for larger loads. A few luddites refused to use them at all, and kids under 18 were forced to walk thanks to the Company’s legal department–big surprise. As an outsider, Davis found himself treated coolly. People were polite to his face but never seemed to go out of their way to be so when he wasn’t looking. Still, there were plenty who’d cross the street to avoid an encounter, and even a few who furtively followed him about.

But nothing really disconcerting happened until Tuesday morning, when a harsh knock at the door brought Davis running. No one was there, but something had been laid on the welcome mat, wrapped in paper. It was a comic book he remembered from his youth, The Adventures of the Swamp Terror about a horrifying plant-man and a ragtag group of hunters who battled him.

A message was scrawled across the cover: “You are dead, and the Swamp Terror lives.”

“Okay, I’ll tell you. But it’s probably going to sound crazy.”

Dr. Teller smiled. “I hear things that ‘sound crazy’ for a living,” he said. “Most of the time they’re nothing of the sort; I make it a point never to judge.”

“I’m…I’m walking down a long hallway. An infinite hallway. It’s made of beautiful, cold crystal, faceted like a diamond and colored by the blue sky above. I’ve been walking for hours–days–before I notice something.”

“And what’s that?” said Dr. Teller.

“The walls are made out of little cells, smooth and transparent and unfaceted. And suspended in each one…is me.”

Scratching on the notepad. “You?”

“Not me as I am now–I recognize that even in the dream–but me as I was. This hallway has every moment of my entire life preserved like a bug in amber. As I walk I see what I wear and my age and my position all change, one crystal cell at a time. Eventually, I get to cells filled with me as I am in the dream: confused, disheveled, and in my pajamas.”

“How does that make you feel?” Dr. Teller asked.

“I’m…well, I’m terrified. What happens if I keep walking? What will I see? And does the crystal corridor have an end? The idea scares me more than a hundred psychos in the back seat of my car. It…it chills me to my core, as if the hallway has become ice. But I keep walking. I can’t stop.”

It so happened that the farm of Yuan Wei Tao grew prosperous in a fertile river valley. This prosperity gave Wei Tao the opportunity to indulge in his passions of basketry, pottery, and calligraphy. He was particularly adept at creating dolls out of reeds, which he would give small clay faces and wrap in a poem. Sold at the market in the nearby city, Wei Tao’s dolls were regarded as good luck charms and made particularly favored gifts for teachers, scholars, and firstborn sons. Despite success with his art, Wei Tao always considered himself a farmer first, and always worked his time in the fields before he would allow himself to indulge his fancies.

Wei Tao had a young wife named Xue Ying, and it was for her that the greatest and most intricate of the farmer’s creations were reserved. Though childless, they shared a great and noble love and could often be seen working the fields together alongside laborers and cousins. Xue Ying’s beauty was renowned throughout the river valley, as was the overwhelming devotion she showed for her husband and neighbors. But one day it came to pass that an ox broke free of its plow and trampled Xue Ying beneath his hooves, killing her instantly.

Distraught, Wei Tao withdrew himself from the world. He concealed Xue Ying’s death, convincing others that she was merely badly injured and under his care. In his despair, Wei Tao crafted the finest doll he had ever created and offered it to the Heavenly Grandfather with a poem begging to be honorably reunited with his beloved. His devotion moved the heavens, and a celestial doll appeared on Wei Tao’s doorstep wrapped in instructions.

Wei Tao created a reed doll in the shape and form of Xue Ying, and filled it with poems of the highest quality describing her life and nature. Then, using a process revealed to him by the Heavenly Grandfather, Wei Tao covered the doll in living clay. This new Xue Ying awoke, was to the eyes of Wei Tao as she had ever been. But the celestial doll had borne a warning: though possessing her form and imbued with her spirit, the new Xue Ying was still but straw and clay.

Wei Tao and Xue Ying lived their lives as they had before, but Wei Tao did not heed the Heavenly Grandfather’s caution and once again worked the fields with his beloved. As she carried heavy burdens, the living clay on Xue Ying’s back gradually thinned until a laborer noticed the bare reeds poking out from beneath her clothing. Thus was the doll’s nature revealed to the valley and also to Xue Ying herself.

The desktop was like his room, clean and generally neat. Documents were neatly labeled and sorted; again, mostly school stuff. I was surprised to find a few short and half-finished stories there—as I said, I’d never know him to be a writer. They were pretty rough, though, and in one case I wasn’t able to follow the plot thread or characters. So much for posthumous publication and literary fame, I guess.

Mike had always been the trusting sort, so all of the passwords on his computer and in his browser autocompleted—I had more or less full access to everything he’d done. And that’s where it got interesting.

It seems he’d been quite the net-hound, with memberships in multiple message boards, forums, and other kinds of internet discourse. His mailboxes were jammed with old correspondence from friends he’d probably never met, wondering where he’d gone. He’d kept an online journal of random observations on one forum, helped run some sort of weekly contest at another.

The last posts were just a day before the accident. There was a journal entry about something in one of his freshman classes, a professor’s gaffe. He’d written in a thread about funny things to yell during sex a mere six hours before we’d gotten the call; it may very well have been the last thing Mike ever wrote, the last communication he ever made.

Lightoller adjusted the picture to try and cut out some static. “Come on now, Navy boys, come on. Don’t want to lose the feed.” He’d promised good, hard, stolen Navy intel for the Zouaves, and he intended to deliver.

“…thanks to the availability of cheap cigarettes and rotgut where I grew up, I’ve gained a lifelong fondness for both,” the interviewee—Peg, wasn’t it?—said. “Plus, they make me look cool, and having a nasty, smelly cigarette in between your lips makes it less likely a guy’s going to stick his tongue in there.”

“Wonder if that’s really the sort of thing the Zouaves are interested in?” Lightoller muttered, raising an eyebrow. “Well, they weren’t specific.”

“Not that I have to worry so much; I don’t make as many trips ‘down south’ as most of the writhing hedonists my age,” Peg continued. “And honestly, when my last memory’s of Darren Winston, filtered through a whole lot of drunk…well, I’m glad for both of us that he must’ve been shooting blanks. After I left home, I never saw him again, and that’s a good thing in my book—he had exactly one virtue, and it wasn’t his wit or sparkling personality. Not exactly husband or father-of-my-children material.”

“Look, miss, if we could just get back to the-” one of the Navy men began, clearly uncomfortable that his interrogation had been hijacked.

He was cut off. “Then again, there are precious few that are qualified for that job opening. The benefits are great, but you’ve gotta have a top-notch resume and be willing to relocate. There’ve been some promising candidates, but the last prospective hire decided to pursue opportunities elsewhere. We didn’t…gel…on an ethical level, which is to say that he accused me of having none. I’m of two minds on the subject of reproduction anyway; while it’s obvious the universe could use another such as me, the same gene pool spawned my dumbass cousin. I figure that’s one bridge to cross when I come to it, hopefully in the arms of a well-sculpted Adonis.”

“Henri said that the tribesmen captured everything from the convoy. The Hotchkiss and its manual. A frontal assault would be suicide, mon capitan!”

“Then you may remain behind,” said Captain Richat. “Your cowardice will be noted in my official report.”

Claude’s eyes widened at the tribunal and bullet-pockmarked wall the captain’s words implied, and shouldered his rifle. “V-very well, mon capitan. I will lead the assault as you have requested.”

“Excellent. Carry out your orders then, corporal.”

Claude led his men over the crest of the dune, whooping and running. The distinct rumble of a machine gun soon followed; Richat kept himself low and quietly counted the bullets fired by tens.

“Ten, twenty, thirty…”

Screams from over the dune, and rifle fire.

“Seven-ten, seven-twenty, seven-thirty…”

The firing stopped just after Richat’s count made it to one thousand one hundred. He casually surmounted the dune and strolled toward the tribesmen’s position. They were violently arguing over the Hotchkiss, and clearly exposed. The captain’s Lebel cracked eight times, one for each of the raiders. His pace didn’t slacken as they fell; he tossed the rifle aside, its magazine empty, and withdrew his revolver from its well-oiled holster.

Several Bedouin were still alive; a quick report from the pistol put and end to that. Richat found Claude, breathing shallowly and weeping blood from multiple wounds, just before the Hotchkiss.

“You see, corporal,” he said, “the Hotchkiss tends to overheat and become useless after about a thousand rounds have been fired in quick succession. The tribesmen lack the discipline to perform a barrel change; all that was needed was an assault to soak up their fire until that point.”

Claude tried to speak, but red foam was all he could push out.

“Oh, don’t worry,” said Richat. “I will be sure to mention your brave, foolish, and totally unauthorized charge in my report. You may even qualify for a posthumous promotion.”