Stargirl

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Chapter 16: Museum

‘So… how do we do this?’ Ziggy asked curiously, looking around at the buildings in each street they passed through as they made their way towards the park.

‘I have literally no idea,’ TM admitted. ‘But Veggie is Veggie, and Veggie says we have to parkour if we want to stand a chance of pulling off this museum robbery thingumabob.’

Ziggy nodded, stretching her arms behind her back as they walked. ‘Thanks for being up for this whole shenanigan,’ she said. ‘You and Veggie. I realise this is far from the most organised or professional burglary prep, but… it means a lot anyway.’

‘You’re our friend,’ TM said with a shrug. ‘We’d both do the same for Veggie if he decided he wanted to rob… somewhere. Within reason.’

They rounded a corner and the park came into view, at which point TM realised that he knew even less about parkour than he’d thought. ‘Come to think of it,’ he said, ‘I’m not sure a flat, open space is actually the best sort of place to practice this stuff.’

‘Mm,’ Ziggy concurred. ‘I was thinking more… like, climbing up buildings, jumping between rooftops. Mikkels Stormson the fuck out of this city, y’know?’

TM nodded, thinking. ‘We can start there,’ he said, pointing to a narrow alleyway leading towards the city centre. Multiple dumpsters stood within, going about their dumpster business. ‘Narrow walls, easy to get up to the top, use the bins for a bit of a boost up.’

‘I like your thinking,’ said Ziggy. ‘Then just piss about on the rooftops for a bit, sound good?’

‘Heck yeah.’

They took off at a light jog towards the alley; TM drew ahead as they reached the entrance. He hoped to look impressive and not fall on his arse like a dick, but was entirely unconvinced that that would in fact be what ended up happening. He vaulted atop one of the large bins with ease, slapping one palm down hard and hurdling up, then jumped and kicked off against the wall.

‘You’ve done this before,’ Ziggy said, folding her arms with a grin as TM hauled himself onto the low roof opposite the bins.

‘Believe me,’ TM said, ‘I’m just as amazed as you that I didn’t just miss completely and fall to my ignoble death.’

‘My go,’ Ziggy proclaimed, hoisting herself up on the lid of one of the bins.

She crouched, holding her arms out for balance and wiggling her toes in her shoes, then leapt for the roof. TM watched as she rose into the air, reaching up and out. He continued to watch as she reached the peak of her jump and started falling back to earth. He started to assemble a consolidating expression on his face, to form some sentence to the effect of ‘good try’. He even thought about fumbling his next jump to make her feel better.

She dropped out of view, slammed against the wall with a thud, then came up over the lip and alighted gracefully.

‘How the fuck,’ said TM. He looked her over suspiciously. ‘Can you fly?’

‘Naw,’ she said, sounding half-regretful about it. ‘I just… used the wall like a floor. Jumped up. Wheeeee.’

‘You’re some sort of gravity wizard,’ TM accused.

‘Possible,’ Ziggy admitted. ‘Hey, before we go off to be incredibly awesome and all that…’

She stepped back over to the edge of the rooftop and sat herself down, legs dangling off into the alleyway. TM plonked next to her.

‘What’s up?’

‘Eh, I was just thinking about some stuff.’

‘Hit me.’

Ziggy’s eyes moved around, catching various objects in her roving stare. She seemed to be trying to come up with the right words. Then she sighed through pursed lips, like a smoker blowing the fumes from her lungs. ‘Heck, I dunno.’

‘Pff.’ TM slouched back onto his elbows, crossing his legs. ‘I think one of the most human of feelings is that sense of having all sorts of massive thoughts but not being totally sure what they’re about.’

Ziggy smiled. ‘I guess I must be really human, then.’

‘I used to know a girl,’ TM said. ‘You remind me of her a bit, actually.’

‘Ooh, a girl.’

‘She was… well, she was a person. Like you. But she also seemed as if she was something other than a person. Not more or less, not higher or lower, just… sideways.’

‘Like she had a bit of something else in her?’

‘Yeah. A bit like you. You’re a person, but you’re also something else. I almost said you’re not quite a person, but that’s not true, you’re one hundred percent a person. You just must be more than one hundred percent overall.’

‘Hundred percent human, hundred percent giant ball of burning space gas,’ Ziggy agreed.

‘Anyway, this girl had a lot of thoughts. About a lot of stuff. I felt like I couldn’t keep up with her a lot of the time, to be honest.’

Ziggy patted his arm. ‘I feel like I can’t keep up with you sometimes, Veggie other times, Derrida pretty much all the time and myself constantly.’

‘Understanding yourself might be the hardest thing a person has to do,’ TM mused.

‘I think I understand you more than myself,’ Ziggy told him. ‘Seems like that’s kind of normal, though. Like there’s some barrier when people try to know themselves, but it’s easier to know other people.’

‘Maybe empathy comes more easily than self-reflection,’ TM suggested. ‘Or maybe it’s easier to be honest about who and what someone else really is than what you yourself are.’

‘Hmm.’

*

‘Do you ever think about infinity?’ Aster asked TM once, in the middle of the night.

‘All the time,’ TM replied, much less than half-awake.

‘It’s kind of misleading that we tend to think of it as just another number, you know?’ she continued. TM got the feeling that she would carry on talking whether he woke up and listened or not, but felt that the polite thing to do would be to sit up and attend, so he did. ‘But it’s kind of like the mind. It’s something that’s really quite unlike anything else.’

‘Makes sense,’ TM reasoned. ‘Nothing finite can be sensibly said to approach infinity, so…’ He trailed off, sleepiness making him forget how the sentence was supposed to end. ‘So,’ he finished unsatisfactorily.

‘So it’s sort of in a class of its own,’ Aster picked up. ‘I don’t think we can even really sensibly attempt to comprehend what it actually is. I mean, the universe is infinite, and we’re a part of it. I don’t think you can even say the universe is made up of us, we’re such a tiny constituent. We’re like a speck of dust in a cathedral the size of China.’

‘Except even that’s still way too big.’

‘We make up… very, very slightly more than zero percent of everything. The percentage of everything that we take up is a number with a zero, a decimal point, and then infinite zeroes. More zeroes than you could write on a piece of paper that was infinitely large.’

‘But if they’re both infinite…’

‘See, it doesn’t make sense to think of it as a number. Writing an infinite number of zeroes won’t fit on an infinitely large piece of paper, but the infinitely large piece of paper has to be infinitely larger than the infinite amount of space that the zeroes would take up.’

‘Some infinities are bigger than others?’ TM hazarded.

‘If anything’s truly infinite,’ said Aster, ‘it’s got to be infinitely larger than every other infinity. But if those are also true infinities, they also have to be infinitely larger, so I guess every true infinity is both infinitely larger and infinitely smaller than every other.’

TM was beginning to wish he’d just gone back to sleep. ‘So nothing can actually be anywhere near infinite, then,’ he reasoned. ‘Just finitely enormous.’

‘I think I could end up thinking about this for an infinite amount of time and not getting any closer to an answer,’ Aster said, pulling the duvet up under her chin.

‘You wouldn’t have any time to do anything else,’ TM pointed out. Aster laughed and ran a hand through her hair, which was bright even in the darkness.

‘Look at me,’ she said. ‘I was going on at you about spending less time breaking stuff down, and here’s me trying to divide up infinity.’

‘Well, we’re a part of infinity,’ TM said, ‘if an infinitely small part.’

Aster bit the inside of her cheek, then sighed and patted him on the chest. ‘Did you know,’ she said abruptly, ‘my name is a part of another word? Or, I guess, the word is made up of the same letters that my name is made up of?’

TM was vaguely aware of at least one word that had ‘aster’ in it, but let her make her point.

‘Disaster means “bad star”. “Dis” for “bad”, “Aster” for “star”.’

‘I was thinking mast –’ TM trailed off. ‘Oh, wait, that’s a “u”, not an “e”.’

Aster ignored that. ‘It’s because they used to think that comets were evil omens, a bad star announcing hard times to come.’

‘I guess they were trying to break down the world into things that affected them,’ TM said. ‘I mean, if they were right, it would have been useful for survival and stuff. They’d have been able to prepare better for the bad times.’

‘If they were right,’ Aster repeated. ‘Maybe that’s why people nowadays forget to appreciate the world. We’re all hardwired to be constantly trying to break it down for survival. Only music manages to bypass that, for most people.’

‘Music?’

‘You can’t get that emotional feeling that music gives unless you manage to ignore the drive to be picking it apart. I mean, that’s a perfectly valid thing to do, and some people can understand everything about a piece and still get really touched by it. But they’ll never again feel the way it made them feel that first time they heard it, before they knew where it was going to go every time.’

‘That’s kind of depressing.’

‘I guess we just need to keep finding stuff to experience for the first time.’

*

‘Uh, TM?’

‘Hm?’

‘Seemed like you kind of zoned out for a bit there. We were just talking, and then…’

‘Oh.’ TM blinked, realising again that he had feet, and hands, and that there was a cold breeze on his skin. ‘Yeah, happens sometimes. Sorry.’

Ziggy furrowed her brow, staring hard at him. ‘What were you thinking about?’

TM sighed. ‘That girl I was telling you about.’

‘You think about her a lot?’

‘I, er…’ TM scratched at an itch at the base of his skull. His face and neck felt warmer than the rest of him. ‘She pops up every now and then.’

‘And I remind you of her?’

‘A bit.’

Ziggy looked away. ‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘Seems like you’d rather not be reminded.’

‘There’s no point trying to forget,’ TM told her. ‘Veggie’s not trying to forget about the Swede. He just doesn’t let that be part of his life any more.’

‘So she’s not part of your life any more?’

‘Nah, she… left.’

‘Oh,’ said Ziggy. She seemed to be unable to meet his eyes. ‘I’m sorry about that.’

‘I’m over it,’ TM told her. He was never sure when he woke up each day whether that was true. ’It doesn’t do any good to try to wipe away the fact that it happened, ‘cos it did.’

Ziggy hummed for a moment. ‘I think I might be able to tell you the stuff I was thinking now, if you wanted a distraction?’

‘Fire away.’

’So when I was being Mikkels Stormson and it was all… like… pew pew…’

‘Are you talking about when you shot those dudes?’

‘Specifically the one that I didn’t want to kill,’ Ziggy said, folding her arms. ‘That wasn’t cool.’

‘Oh, yeah, you tranquilised him and he fell off and died,’ TM remembered.

‘It just made me think about… death,’ Ziggy said.

TM sat there for a moment, nodding and thinking. ‘Death,’ he repeated.

‘I don’t want to die,’ Ziggy said.

TM had not an inkling of what the appropriate response to that might be. ‘Me neither,’ he said, which seemed insufficient but was the best he could come up with.

‘It’s weird,’ she continued, fingers tapping against each her arms. ‘I don’t know that you could say I was alive until a few days ago, but I really don’t want to not be alive any more.’

‘So what were you before you were alive?’ TM asked. ‘I mean, you must have been some sort of… thing that existed, if you were able to decide you wanted to run away from the sky and come down here to be with us.’

‘I think I was conscious, but not in the same way as I am now,’ she said. Her lips opened and closed a few times; her tongue flicked against the roof of her mouth; her teeth bit down on her bottom lip. Then she huffed. ‘It’s hard to explain.’

‘Everything seems to be, these days,’ TM said.

‘I mean, being conscious is weird,’ Ziggy said, as if starting an entirely new conversation. ‘It’s really, really weird.’

‘Totally unlike anything else,’ TM concurred, remembering a conversation from long ago.

‘And it seems to just kind of pop up as this happy little side effect of the way the brain’s put together, which is pretty neat.’

‘So who’s to say that something similar – totally different, because sentience is so unique, but kind of in the same vein – might not have arisen out of the way other stuff’s put together?’ TM continued for her. The words felt strange coming out of his mouth. They were his words, but words that had been put there long ago by another star-girl, one long since gone to burn brightly elsewhere in the cosmos. ‘Like the universe might have its own mind, in a way.’

Ziggy gave him a funny look. ‘Exactly,’ she said, sounding uncertain. ‘Y’know, I get the sense that you’re… I don’t know, following a script here. Or repeating something. Like it’s not really you saying that.’

‘That’s the thing about consciousness,’ TM said. ‘It passes little fragments of itself on to other bits of consciousness, and that way it lives on even when it’s gone.’

Ziggy opened her mouth as if to say something, but nothing came out. She closed it again, then laughed quietly.

‘What?’

‘I just like that idea,’ she said. ‘Even when we’re gone, there’ll be bits of our lives, or words we’ve said, that have reproduced themselves in other minds. Like we’re a tree dropping seed pods into other people and sprouting little offspring. Continuing.’

TM shook his head, feeling as if he were tumbling down some rabbit hole into a past life, a memory of a girl that would always live within him but that could never again be real. ‘Anyway, maybe when you were a star you were conscious, just in a different sort of way.’

Ziggy nodded, rolling the idea around in her brain. ‘Sounds about right.’

‘D’you reckon there are more? Like you?’

‘Don’t see why not,’ she said. ‘Heck, maybe Veggie’s one and you just never noticed.’

TM considered this. ‘So… there could be loads of people who are secretly stars, just living as people?’

‘I guess. Like I said, I think I have a twin somewhere. At least, I did up there. Don’t know whether she’d have come down too.’

TM clasped his hands behind his head and lay back, looking up at the sky. The stars were starting to twinkle above, albeit behind a thick layer of cloud. ‘The world’s a crazy place, when you get down to it,’ he said.

‘Course it is,’ Ziggy told him, standing and shaking her limbs out. ‘It’s totally ridiculous that anything even exists in the first place, so you just have to roll with it. Look, I’m starting to freeze out here, so let’s tear up these rooftops, yo?’

With that, she set off at a brisk run, kicked off the ground and soared up and over the gap between their rooftop and the next. TM stood, stretched, and thought about how lucky it was that all the buildings in the area happened to have largely flat and traversable rooftops.

‘Come on,’ she called back to him. ‘We’ve got training to do, or something.’

TM smiled to himself and followed her. He cleared the space between buildings less gracefully than the girl running ahead of him; she began to tumble across the cityscape, spinning and launching herself over the gaps. He was more cautious, hurtling smaller obstacles and stopping to check the distance of larger ones before hopping across. Somehow, he never fell too far behind.

‘Oh, hey,’ she said suddenly, sliding to a halt atop what TM might have been a supermarket. The thought reminded him that they really did need to go food shopping – and soon, and probably buy more vegetables than last time – but Ziggy’s insistent pointing put an end to his mental shopping list composition. ‘It’s the museum,’ she said.

‘Oh, yeah,’ TM realised, following her pointing finger across the street. The museum stood there, as always. It looked less exciting than the last time they’d visited, nothing more or less than a plan building without the crows and the spectacle of the rock on a pedestal behind the coloured rope. Its only distinguishing feature was the high, pointed roof and the generic angel atop it.

‘We should scope the place out,’ Ziggy muttered, thumb resting on her chin, forefinger tapping her cheek. ‘No point practising all this stuff if we get in there and realise we haven’t got a clue where we need to go.’

‘That would suck,’ TM agreed. ‘So I guess we just hop down, waltz in through the front door and… actually just visit the museum?’

‘Something like that,’ said Ziggy, nodding. ‘Sort of surprised we didn’t already think that might be worth doing.’

‘Hm,’ said TM. ‘First question, though: how do we get down?’

Ziggy shuffled over to the edge of the roof and peered down. ‘I don’t think we can jump,’ she said earnestly. ‘So that one’s out.’

‘Not sure it was ever in,’ TM mumbled, scratching his head. ‘Any, er… pipes to slide down?’

Ziggy dropped to all fours, craning her neck to examine the wall below. ‘There’s a few ledges and stuff,’ she said. ‘Nothing major, but I reckon I got this.’

‘What,’ TM started to say, but only got as far as ‘wh’ before Ziggy stood, raised her arms and fell forwards, swan-diving off the rooftop. TM dashed over, staring down to the street, and saw her leaning casually against the wall, both feet safely on the ground. ‘How!’ he yelled down at her, flailing his arms about so as to communicate both how impressed he was and how utterly distressed and confused he was.

‘I just grabbed a few sticky-outy bits on the way down, slowed myself down a bit,’ she explained, unsatisfactorily.

‘I’m taking this ladder down,’ TM said; Ziggy groaned in mock disappointment.

‘Let-down,’ she accused with a smug grin. ‘Fair play for actually spotting that, though. I think I was just excited to jump.’

TM slid down the fire escape, which they had both entirely failed to miss at first glance and which seemed slightly superfluous given that there was nothing whatsoever on the roof. ‘What can I say?’ he said, spreading his arms in mock apology. ‘I’m not a gravity wizard.’

She ruffled his hair affectionately. ‘I think I made myself a bit lighter,’ she said, looking down at herself. ‘Helped with the fall, I guess, but… I don’t think I like it.’

TM couldn’t tell the difference, if he was honest. On close inspection, she might have been slightly skinner. He didn’t really mind one way or the other; he was just happy as long as she was okay with how she looked.

‘This museum is free to get in, right?’ she asked him as they crossed the street.

‘It was the last time I was here,’ he told her, deciding to omit the fact that he hadn’t been in over ten years. ‘Donations accepted or something, probably.’

They hopped up the steps and entered; the old building was barely any warmer than the crisp outdoors. There were one or two people knocking about, but not many and not enthusiastically.

‘It’ll be closing soon,’ TM said, getting his bearings.

‘Ooh, look,’ Ziggy twittered, ignoring him, ‘they’ve got a stuffed giraffe.’

‘Depressing.’ TM shivered, glancing up at the dead animal’s face with distaste. ‘Let’s just look for the rock, yeah?’

‘Aw, come on,’ Ziggy entreated him, reading a map stuck on the wall behind a thin sheet of what looked like glass but was probably plastic. Or clingfilm. ‘We’ve got, like, a whole hour and a half left before Veggie wants us back, let’s have a look around at least.’

TM groaned. ‘Fine,’ he said, ‘but I’m not going in the room with the stuffed tiger.’

Ziggy gave him a mischievous smile. ‘I’m asking your parents about that one when I see them next,’ she said, and sauntered off in the direction of the Roman pottery.

TM watched her go for a moment, then followed. She meandered through the corridors, stopping every few steps to read the labels under the rows of jars and plates and ancient masks.

‘History is cool,’ she said, examining a suit of centurion’s armour. ‘Can I put this on?’

‘Probably not,’ TM said. ‘Hey, look at this: “the constellations according to the ancients”.’

‘Boring,’ Ziggy yawned. ‘Come on, man, I came down here to get away from all that stuff. How would you like it if you ran away from home and the guys you were staying with kept deciding it would be fun to talk about your parents?’

‘I guess that wouldn’t be the best,’ TM admitted. ‘Sorry.’

‘No worries,’ Ziggy said.

She trundled around for a few more minutes, until eventually deciding that it might be time to go and see the thing around which her entire life aspirations had revolved since she first laid eyes upon it.

‘I warn you,’ she said, half-seriously, ‘I may just attempt to take it now.’

‘Don’t do that,’ TM said, trotting after her as she headed for the back of the building. ‘Although it would save us some time if you did.’

The largest room, spanning the entire width of the building and boasting a ceiling twice as high as any other room in the place, was reserved for ‘special exhibitions’. Generally, this would entail perhaps a guitar once played by some one-time musician who had been entirely the least memorable member of their briefly-notable ensemble; on multiple occasions, when nothing else was forthcoming, it had served as a gallery, walls lined with children’s colour-in sheets depicting various historical figures. This space rock, if a space rock it was indeed, was quite possibly the most interesting thing ever to occupy the room. In keeping with its lofty status, it had attracted one of the largest crowds ever to attend such an exhibit at this museum: three entire people were in the room examining it when Ziggy entered. TM trundled in behind her, struggling to keep up.

‘How does this place stay in business?’ Ziggy wondered aloud; TM shrugged.

‘By having absolutely no expenditures whatsoever, I guess,’ he suggested, noticing the complete and utter lack of staff, security, wallpaper or other budget-draining miscellanea.

‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ said one of the patrons in a familiar voice, lightly accented with the telltale vowels of one who has received extensive training on how to speak ‘properly’.

TM glanced up at the rock, sealed within a large glass cube on a high pedestal. Multi-coloured beams shone through it from large theatre lights, which seemed to TM not to have been fully thought through, since shining white light on the crystals on its surface scattered entire spectra just as effectively. Then he looked at the man who had spoken, and blinked in surprise.

‘Oh, hey,’ he said to Al Tyer, who gave a regal nod without taking his eyes from the exhibit.

‘The cosmos is ever so interesting these days, don’t you think?’ Tyer asked rhetorically. It might have been the longest sentence TM had ever heard him say, having only ever watched the weather with the sound off.

‘I… guess,’ TM said; Ziggy nodded wordlessly, her eyes flickering between Tyer and the rock.

‘Stars going missing,’ Tyer continued, ‘stars dimming. Entire constellations appearing to fall through the sky, if only for a moment.’

‘Hadn’t heard about that one,’ TM said.

‘It’s all rather concerning, really,’ said Tyer matter-of-factly. ‘As above, so below.’

‘Er, right.’

‘You see,’ Tyer carried on, and TM became more convinced as time went on that Tyer had no idea that anyone was even there, and was in fact just talking to the rock, ‘this place is only the lowest, least fundamental level of an infinite universe. The most… contingent.’ He glanced down for a moment, his grey eyes leaving the rock for the first time. He pinched the bridge of his nose as if in discomfort, then resumed his upwards gaze. ‘This planet, every planet, is entirely beneath the notice of that which is above.’

‘What’s above?’ Ziggy said; TM thought he detected half a shiver in her voice.

Tyer’s head revolved slowly to look at her, the rest of his neat-suited body remaining perfectly still. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘That is… above my pay grade, as it were. But whatever it is, it is far more fundamental than anything below it, and it is entirely uncaring.’

‘So the universe doesn’t care about us,’ said TM. ‘That’s fine.’

‘You make your own purpose, then,’ Tyer said, not taking his eyes from Ziggy. She stared down at her feet. ‘That’s admirable, I suppose. Don’t you think, though: a meaning you make for yourself, whatever it might be, is by necessity less of a meaning than one ordained by the universe?’

‘Nah,’ TM said. He stepped back and put a protective arm around Ziggy. Her body felt tense, as if trying hard not to shake. ‘You said the universe doesn’t care about me, so I don’t give too much of a shit about it either.’

‘Hm,’ said Tyer. His gaze slowly made its way to TM’s face. ‘We need our stars back.’

TM shook his head and started dragging Ziggy towards the exit as gently and surreptitiously as he could while keeping his eyes fixed on Tyer.

‘Reality is just forces,’ Tyer proclaimed. ‘Gravity has no thought on whether a few degrees’ worth of difference in an orbit is likely to result in the non-continuation of a tiny planet’s existence. The changing of the stars can be nothing other than the beginning of gravity’s unintentional collapse of your world.’

‘I thought you were a weatherman, not a conspiracy theorist,’ TM said. He narrowed his eyes at Tyer, doing his best to get Ziggy – who shuffled slowly, too slowly as he pulled her along – away from him.

'I am a local celebrity,' said Al Tyer. 'We are many things.'

‘Great, good for you,’ TM told him, reaching the door at last. He had no idea which door it was, no guess as to which corridor or section of exhibits it might lead to, only that it would take them away from Al Tyer.

He pulled it open.

‘Have a nice day,’ he said, and stepped through. Tyer’s eyes, unblinking, followed them until the door closed. TM had never been so glad to have a few-inches-thick layer of wood between himself and another person.

Beside him, Ziggy let out an enormous lungful of air. It sounded as if she were breathing for the first time since they had encountered Tyer. ‘I want to go home,’ she said, her arms folded around herself. TM could see her upper arms turning white as her fingers dug into them.

‘Yeah, I think so,’ TM agreed, leading her down the corridor.

African-style masks and tribal weapons leered and loomed down from the walls on either side; Ziggy shrank away from them, making herself as small as she could. TM, one arm still around her shoulders, thought he could feel her body physically shrinking.

They emerged into the street; the sun was half-visible over the rooftops, setting more quickly than TM would have liked. He looked up, and the few stars that were already visible seemed to shake, then flare brightly. He blinked, and everything was back to its normal luminescence.

‘I’m real, but I’m not real,’ Ziggy whispered. ‘Real, but not real.’

‘Whoa,’ TM said, holding her hand firmly. ‘What’s up?’

‘He got to me,’ she said, her free hand moving across her body from hair to arm to chest and back again. Her fingers clenched and wriggled as if trying to scratch an itch, hold onto something so she didn’t drift away, and cover herself for protection and warmth all at the same time.

‘I know he’s a bit weird,’ TM concurred, leading her through the streets back towards the flat, ‘but… you don’t have to feel anything about it. You’re with me, we’re going home and we’re gonna just be the most generally sweet people in the world, okay?’

‘He’s not just weird,’ she said. ‘He’s not from here.’

TM stuttered and sighed, stuttered again and sighed again, then settled for: ‘Are you okay?’ It was a dumb question, he knew it, but he needed to say something.

‘Him and O’Ryan,’ she muttered. ‘O’Ryan and him, and… me.’

‘They make you feel weird, right?’ TM said, grasping for something he could latch on to, something he could identify. If he could identify something, he might be able to fix it. ‘You never seem to be able to move around O’Ryan, even just on TV.’

‘Imagine standing between two walls pressing in on you,’ Ziggy said. Her eyes pointed blankly to the ground, her feet moving along as if she thought she might forget how to walk if she stopped even for a moment. ‘Or two black holes. All that gravity, that most fundamental force, all of that pulling you and pushing you and imposing a place on you.’

‘That’s what it’s like for you just being around them?’

‘It’s like how I felt when I had an orbit to stick to. Nothing to do but fall down the path ordained by the gravity of all the other stars. Like being on a rollercoaster, going around the loop and forgetting which way is up. Every direction just feels like falling, and you couldn’t leave the path of the rails if you wanted.’

TM concentrated on walking for a few moments. Then: ‘What did you mean, real but not real?’

Ziggy shook her head. TM felt as if she were trying to shake something free, or perhaps to remind herself of where she was, and that she even was in the first place. ‘I killed people,’ she said. ‘In those video games.’

‘You didn’t really kill people, Zig,’ TM told her. ‘They weren’t really people, just… skeletons of binary bits under source code muscles wearing pixel skins.’

‘But I did,’ she insisted. ’Just because they weren’t the same sort of people as you and me doesn’t mean that they didn’t exist. How would we be talking about them if they didn’t exist?’

‘Metaphysics isn’t my strong suit,’ TM had to admit.

’If we’re talking about something, then that something exists. If only as a referent of our speech and not as an actual physical thing, but it’s still real. If something’s fictional, it might not be part of the same level of reality as you, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an existence. Like… you can say you killed someone. That means nothing unless you’re really talking about something. Or… Okada lost to Tanahashi. That’s a sentence you can say, and it’s true, even though it’s a story and they’re characters and he didn’t really lose because the result was predetermined.’

‘So… existence is just a matter of which level of reality you’re on.’

Ziggy stumbled, then righted herself. ‘How are we supposed to know which level we’re on?’ she wondered. ‘When I die, maybe I’ll only be dead in this little bit of existence but someone on a higher level will be able to just… look back and see me when I was still here. Like starting a new game, bringing all those people back to life that you spent so long murdering.’

‘I guess since we’ve decided they do exist in some meaningful way, that means that they really are alive or dead, or… dying. Which means we really do kill them, in a sense.’

‘It’s all just in a sense,’ Ziggy said. TM could feel her leaning, more of her weight depending on his support to keep moving. Her hair was losing its colour. ‘Everything’s just… in one sense or the other.’

‘We’re back,’ TM told her. She released a breath and nodded.

TM pushed open the door of the flat, still holding her hand tightly, and they swept in to see Veggie, Derrida, Marty and Dominika all taking their seats at the table. All four heads turned in their direction as the door swung open, and Ziggy collapsed into a seat between Marty and Dominika.

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