by Joanne Walton
“What day is it for you?”
Fate looked up from her spreadsheet and frowned, more out of habit than actual annoyance. She’d grown used to Chance making this kind of entrance to her office whenever he had something to tell her, or to have told her, or to be telling her, but that didn’t mean she liked it. Fate liked her office orderly and controlled, which was why she conceptualised her workspace as an office in the first place. She had spreadsheets and filing cabinets and properly organised storage systems. She was methodical about all her work, carefully weaving together the intricate happenings of the universe so that the things that needed to happen happened. True, she might not make the decisions about these things, but it was fair to say they wouldn’t happen without her. So it really sucked that this sweet, clueless asshole was ranked above her.
She had heard the argument for his seniority too many times to count: Chance has to keep track of infinite possible outcomes for infinite numbers of possibilities, and they only increase exponentially. There just aren’t as many definites to keep track of. As if that somehow made what she did less important, even though she literally dealt with every actually-meaningful happening in existence. The real kick in the teeth was that his rank meant Chance wasn’t confined to linear time, whilst she was stuck with it, even though it would have really helped to view the exact results ahead of time, cut any unnecessary detours out of the road she was laying out. But no, that would defeat the object, they said, so here she was carrying out her existence in the prescribed order while Chance got to pop off and have Christmas whenever he was feeling a bit blue. He didn’t even have the courtesy to check the linear date before he came to communicate with her, which, frankly, was just rubbing it in.
“Good morning,” she said, pointedly. “It’s currently 17th July 2018, and if I don’t get this baby born in the next five minutes they’ll be out of sync their whole lives, so…”
That wasn’t exactly true. Given that she was personally responsible for every single birth that took place on the whole of the Earth, she always got them lined up and ready to go well in advance. She just liked to remind him that she, too, had omnipresent influence.
Chance didn’t seem to notice. For some reason, whenever he came here, he always presented as having floppy hair that fell into his eyes so that he spent the whole time sweeping it away. It was typical of the energy Chance wasted on unimportant things.
If I did the job, Fate thought, we wouldn’t need myriad possibilities at all. I could do the whole thing far more efficiently.
“Right,” Chance nodded. “Then can you come with me?”
Fate gawped at him. In the whole history of existence, they had only worked together once; and that was to get the Universe up and running in the first place. The only time their paths ever crossed was to make sure none of his possibilities would derail her definites. “Why?” She asked, finally.
Chance sucked his lips in over his teeth. “Wonder is dying.”
“You’re wrong, of course,” Fate told him, as they headed out. “I handle all meaningful deaths. A Concept ‘dying’ would be a huge deal, and I haven’t heard anything about it.”
Not that she’d grieve if it had been true. Wonder was the biggest drama queen that could be conceived in the bounds of possibility, and Fate kind of hated her.
“She is, I’ve seen it.”
“We don’t die!” Fate said, frustrated. “We’re the fabric of existence. Wonder dying is literally impossible.”
“Fate, trust me on this.” For the first time, Chance smiled slightly at her, lopsided and turning only one corner of his mouth, his eyes still sad, as if even his face didn’t know which way it was going to fall. It made her oddly unhappy, to see him that way. “Possibility is kind of my thing.”
Wonder wasn’t big on conceptualisation. She always liked to remain big and wide and unquantifiable, a pervasive sense in the back of the mind, to be worshipped, adored, and sought out. But Fate thought she was kind of a bitch and so, when they were forced to work together on someone’s divine bolt of inspiration, she usually pictured her as a blonde suburban housewife who had had too much plastic surgery.
Today, though, Wonder looked bad even by Fate’s standards. She was reclining on the couch of the cavernous room she always seemed to appear in, looking decidedly pale. Her face was blurring in and out of focus, as Fate struggled to keep hold of what Wonder was meant to be. She felt a twist of pity, immediately followed by suspicion. Soliciting emotion was Wonder’s whole thing.
“What’s going on?” she demanded, with as much intimidating authority as she could. She was at least senior to someone. “Wonder, what is this about? Pull yourself together.”
“I can’t,” Wonder said, and her voice, which was always irritatingly high-pitched and musical, was tremulous and weak. “I’m dying, Fate. Humanity doesn’t want me any more!” She swooned dramatically and fell deeper into the plump couch cushions. Fate raised her eyebrows.
“You are one of the founding principals of existence,” she said, impatiently. “It’s not a question of humanity wanting you. You’re a part of them, they can’t help it.”
Wonder whimpered, but said nothing. Chance went and took her hand, stroking it soothingly. Fate rolled her eyes.
“Why do you think that they’re forgetting you?” he asked.
“I don’t know!” Her voice was a wail now, the weakness apparently gone, although her hand was still irritatingly limp in Chance’s. “I gave them mountains and oceans, sunshine, all the things they love, but it hasn’t worked!”
Frowning, Fate willed a mobile phone into her hand and checked her organiser. “There’s nothing happening today,” she said.
“There’s tons happening today,” Chance disagreed.
“Nothing important,” Fate snapped back, just managing to stop herself from reminding him that half an hour ago he hadn’t even known what today was. Wonder was now sighing dramatically with every breath, her eyes closed. Fate ignored her. “Nothing world-changing,” she clarified. “Nothing on a grand enough scale that humanity would suddenly lose all sense of awe.”
“We’ll get a clearer idea from the ground,” Chance said decisively, finally dropping Wonder’s hand. “Fate, we’ll take human aspect and check it out.”
The words shocked Fate into silence. She’d always desperately wanted to do field work. She’d planned all those births and had wanted to oversee them personally, to make sure every child knew that the Universe wanted them there even if their parents didn’t, but no, they’d said. She couldn’t be spared. So she’d given up on it, but still she longed to see just what she was bringing them into.
Thankfully, annoyingly, Chance didn’t seem to care about her silence. He was smiling again, and this time the sorrowful look had gone from his eyes.
“Remember I outrank you,” he said, “and it’s an order.”
Earth was exactly as Fate saw every day on the television screens she had conceived of in the corner of her office. It was the same buildings, same cars, same people even—but it was very different seeing it from amongst them, in corporeal form. She’d never noticed how the glints of sunlight on the shop windows would move when you did, how the sound of the traffic was like the crashing of waves in a rhythmic ocean. People slid round her like a stream, a hundred different conversations from a hundred different lives, all their priorities and concerns different, but all mixing together and flowing on. And then there were the physical sensations. She was hot already, and her human body was secreting something to cool her down, and whilst she wasn’t a huge fan of the method, she had to marvel that this body somehow knew what to do, could self-correct—
“I forgot you aren’t used to this,” Chance grinned. “Try not to widen your eyes so much. It just makes you look weird; I learnt that the hard way.”
He looked different here, in the flesh. He was taller than he usually presented himself, but plumper, his angles softened. His eyes were still brown, but a much more alive brown; she’d never thought of his eyes as being dead before, but she did now. Conceptual eyes could never compare to living ones, with all that spirit behind them. His hair was no longer the sensible, professional brown he brought to the office, but a bright, vivid orange you could lose a satsuma in. His hair was still too long, though, and floppy, and the breeze was playing with it, stirring it into movement. Fate followed the wind, running her fingers through his hair, feeling its softness, the satisfying silkiness as it slipped through her hands. Sensations were good. This felt good.
Beneath her hands Chance was shaking with silent laughter, and as the sound of it escaped his lips it was enough to snap her out it. She snatched her all-too-human hands away, looking at them in horror.
“You okay?” Chance asked. “Done?”
Fate nodded, and for lack of anything better to do, started walking down the street.
“There’s no need to be embarrassed,” Chance said cheerfully, falling into step beside her. “Happens to everyone the first few times.”
“I’m not embarrassed,” Fate said, but her body was betraying her, and leaving all her blood in her cheeks. She swiftly changed the subject. “It all looks fine round here. It looks, well, Wonderful.”
“Yeah,” Chance agreed, “but you saw her. There must be something.”
“It can’t have just happened overnight.” Fate shook her head. “We need to investigate this properly.”
“Right,” Chance said. “How do you want to do this? Should we hit the tavern?”
Fate gave him a withering look. “This isn’t D&D. When you’d like to join us in the twenty-first century, we can go and google it.” They were approaching a corner and she pointed at the sign ahead. It had several directions on it, Beach and Town Centre and Public Toilets, but the one Fate was interested in said Library. She followed it, and Chance came with her, loping along like a puppy. She had no idea how this guy outranked her.
It turned out it was much harder than they had anticipated to browse the internet at the library. First, they needed to register for library cards, which Fate did with much reluctance, given that Chance introduced them as ‘Sally Portent’ and ‘Nicholas Harbinger’. Once the cards were processed the librarian had to book them into a slot, and once that was done, they had to wait for her to come and log them in. Even then they had to agree to three pages of privacy policies and appropriate use guidelines before, at last, they could search online for what they wanted.
That turned out to be harder than Fate had anticipated. It wasn’t the computer that caused the problem for her, though it was frustrating having to show Chance three times. No matter what she searched for, she couldn’t seem to find a definitive answer as to why Wonder was fading from the world. She found plenty of forum posts and article comments from people feeling depressed, talking about what was wrong with the world today and blaming various people for it, but nothing clearly explaining when attitudes had changed and why. If they had changed. Fate was sceptical, and she was getting nowhere.
“I can’t find anything useful,” she eventually admitted, massaging her watering eyes. They were starting to feel tired and irritated, and these were not enjoyable like the other physical sensations. Also her stomach was beginning to complain, as vocal as her mouth could ever be. She tried to ignore its rumblings. She wasn’t actually human. She could rise above her body.
“I think it’s great,” Chance said, “Look at this!” His voice was so excited she turned her attention immediately to his screen, but it didn’t look like any sort of major breakthrough. He was just on Wikipedia.
“This website has everything about everything!” Chance said. “And look, all the words have links, and if they don’t…” He paused dramatically, highlighted the text, right clicked, and searched. He gestured expansively at his screen. “That’s literally it! That’s all you have to do to find something out! Isn’t that amazing?”
“And what have you found out?” Fate asked, because the Wikipedia page he had been reading appeared to be entitled Reidoth the Druid.
“I didn’t know what D&D was, and now I do, and I love it,” Chance said, practically bouncing in his chair. “You know, I’ve probably overseen tons of games, all that dice throwing, but I never hang around enough to see what people are actually playing. Hey, have you ever done one? Intervened to give someone a natural 20 for an epic victory?”
“No,” Fate said. “And how does this help us?”
“It just sounds really fun. I might pop out and find a game going somewhen, hang on.”
“Wonder is dying. Apparently.”
“Fine,” Chance said. “Back to work. But, um, I can tell you that our chances of finding anything useful like this are infinitesimally small.”
“Well what would you suggest?”
“Right now? Food.”
Fate wanted to protest that there wasn’t time, but in the end her hunger won, and they set off in search of something to calm the protestations from her belly. Chance, it turned out, had eaten before and he was full of recommendations, though he wasn’t sure what would be most chronologically and geographically appropriate, or even what they’d be able to get. Fate wished he would keep his voice down. He was attracting attention.
“How often do you do this?” she asked.
“As much as I can.” He grinned. “Look, doughnuts!”
Doughnuts, it turned out, were delicious. They were greasy and sweet and warm, and as they filled her stomach Fate could feel the warmth seeping through her body. She began to feel more optimistic. They would find the answer to this, she thought.
“The problem is,” she said, licking her fingers, “we’ve been looking too much at the every day. If we really want to find out why Wonder’s disappearing, we need to go where the humans do to experience it.”
“Somewhere with a view?” Chance said, pointing over at where the cliff face was just visible. Fate nodded, and they set off together through the town to find where the coastal path began.
It took them a long time to climb. Not because it was difficult; the slope was gentle and the path well-maintained. It was just that every corner seemed to lead to something new, a new glimpse of the coves and caves below, a new strip of woodland, hedgerows, birds, insects; so much variety that Fate couldn’t see how Boredom could even exist. The world was full of life, full of feelings, the breeze on her arms, the tang of salt in the air, and there, with her, Chance; excited at everything, excited to show her everything, despite probably having seen it a hundred times before. If everyone was like Chance, she thought, Wonder would have nothing to worry about.
Finally, they reached the highest point of the landscape, and it took her breath away. To the right and the left, in front and below, crags of rocks reached out as if to try and enclose the sea in its arms, but the ocean could not be tamed. It ran between them and out, joyously stretching as far as the eye could see in every direction. From up here you couldn’t see the waves, and the water looked blue and inviting. It was magnificent.
“This is all wrong,” Fate said, when she could speak again, shaking her head. “How can Wonder say she’s dying, when there’s still all this? It just isn’t possible.”
She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the view, so she felt rather than saw Chance shift position to stand behind her. She felt his arms fold round her waist, felt the secure strength of his arms, of his chest, his body, at her back. She felt the weight of his chin fall onto her shoulder, and the tickle of his breath on her neck as they looked out together. She felt so many things, all at once, reactions firing off in her wonderfully human body, and she felt as if she understood everything and nothing all at once. They looked at the view together. She wondered what it would feel like to kiss him.
“Fate,” he said, quietly.
She knew she should pull away then, because she could hear he was wondering the same thing, but his arms were so comfortable, her stomach felt so content, and she understood that she was, in that moment, happy.
“Chance,” she murmured back, looking down at him. It was a mistake. She just wanted to kiss his hair.
“Would it be alright if I…?”
“It wouldn’t work,” she couldn’t look at him now, and stared back at the sea instead. “I know which relationships are meant to be. I didn’t see this.”
“And I’ve seen lots of possibilities,” he said, releasing her and coming to stand face to face, and already she missed the feel of him, but now she could see he was smiling again, and looking uncharacteristically certain of what he said. “Hundreds of them. And this is the only one I’ve liked.”
“Really?” Fate raised her eyebrows.
“Well, no,” he admitted, “But it’s by far my favourite.”
And so she kissed him, because he was irritating and beautiful and he had shown her this marvellous life; and she so desperately, desperately wanted to.