• Olivie Blake

THE ATLAS PARADOX: Sequel Preview

The following is an excerpt from THE ATLAS PARADOX, Book II in The Atlas Series.

PART I: ORIGINS


Gideon Drake shaded his eyes from the red-burning sun and swept a glance across the landscape, an unfamiliar stretch of scorched and blackened hills. Heat rippled in the air between particulate clouds of ash, little moth-wings of debris floating delicately to blur his peripheral vision. The smoke was thick, chalky enough to stick in his throat, and if any of it were real it would constitute a medical emergency on the spot. 


But it wasn’t, so it didn’t.


Gideon glanced down at the black lab beside him, frowning in contemplation, and then turned back to the scene, pulling his shirt above his mouth to manifest a thin veil of semi-breathable air.


“That’s very interesting,” Gideon murmured to himself. None of it was in any way reassuring from the outset, but on the whole, everything suggested he was in the right place.


These things happened from time to time in Gideon's experience. He called them erosions, though if he ever met another of his kind he wouldn’t be surprised to learn there was already a proper name in place. They were common enough, although almost never this flammable. This level of damage was troubling, but also serendipitously strange.


“Well, come on then, Max,” Gideon said to the dog who was coincidentally also his roommate, angling their path further west. Max sniffed the air and whined in opposition, doubtful of whether that was wise, but they both understood that the dream realms were Gideon’s domain, and therefore it was Gideon’s decision. He knew the shifting patterns of the realms the same way sailors know the tides—almost prophetically. His senses were even keener now that he rarely left their midst, and besides, even canine instincts could be faulty.


Grudgingly, Max conceded to follow. 


If Gideon had a philosophy, it was this: No sense despairing. There was no telling what was real and what was not, and his perception of a wasteland might be something else entirely to its creator. It was a fine reminder of something Gideon had learned long ago: there is doom to be found everywhere if doom is what you seek. 


Magically speaking, the dream realms were part of a collective subconscious. The idea had been explored before, although never very correctly. Not that any errors in understanding were the fault of the explorers themselves, of course. While every human had access to a corner of the realms, none were able to properly zoom out, to see the whole picture. To see where they themselves ended and others began required a particular set of skills.


That, or in the case of certain humans: purely insufferable stubbornness.


This was a train of thought that Gideon could not typically indulge without a blister of resistance. For practical purposes, he had spent the last year training himself to stop cataloguing the absence of his and Max’s usual companion, which was where the thought would ultimately go. It had been difficult at first; the lack of a falcon perched somewhere in Gideon's periphery was sometimes a more noticeable vacancy than others. It usually came back to him intuitively, like muscle memory, without preemption or forethought and therefore without reasonable prevention. On a normal day, a thought like that one would gladly disrupt the deliberation of Gideon's intended route.


The problem was that Nico de Varona was not readily forgotten, nor easily parted from. Missing him was like missing a severed limb, never quite complete and never whole, though on occasion the vestigial aches were mildly prognostic. Helpful for navigation when the scenario was right, like now.


Gideon allowed himself to feel the things he tried (under other circumstances) not to, and like a sigh of remorse, he felt the realms shift beneath his feet. The nightmare subsided, giving way like a recalcitrant cat, and then Gideon followed the path that came to him most easily: his own.


“I’m Nico,” said the wild-eyed, messy-haired boy whose t-shirt was inadvertently folded up on one side due to the presence of his duffel bag. “You’re Gideon, I take it? You look exhausted,” he said in the same breath, tossing his bag onto the bed closest to the door and peering with calculation around the tiny living space that was the NYUMA freshman dorms. “You know, we’d have a lot more room if we bunked these," Nico remarked, apparently undeterred by Gideon's lack of reply.


It had been difficult to explain what exactly Nico's presence had done to the air in the room, which Nico himself didn’t appear to have noticed. With mild claustrophobia, Gideon managed, “I’m not sure we’re allowed to move the furniture. I guess we could ask?”


“We could, but asking would so diminish our chance of a favorable outcome.” Nico paused, glancing at him. “What is that accent, by the way? French?”


“Sort of. Acadian, I guess.”


“Is that like Québécois?”


“Close enough.”


Nico’s grin broadened. “Well, excellent,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to expand linguistically. I think too much in English now, I need something else. Never trust a dichotomy, I say. Though on a related note, do you want top or bottom?” he asked, and Gideon blinked.


“You choose,” he produced from somewhere, and Nico waved a hand, rearranging in such an effortless blink that Gideon had forgotten what the room looked like to begin with.


In real life, Gideon had learned very quickly that if there wasn’t space, Nico made some. If things sat still for too long, then Nico would inevitably disrupt them. The school administrators at NYUMA had felt the only necessary accommodation for Gideon’s presence was to label him “in need of disability services” and leave it at that, but given everything Gideon observed about his new roommate, he’d been apprehensively certain that it was only a matter of time before Nico found him out.


“Where do you go?” Nico asked. “When you sleep.”


It was two weeks into the school year and Nico had climbed down from the top bunk, manifesting at Gideon’s side and startling him awake. Gideon hadn’t even known he was sleeping.


“I have narcolepsy,” he managed to say.


“Bullshit,” Nico replied.


Gideon had stared at him and thought, I can’t tell you. Not that he thought Nico was going to turn out to be some sort of creature-hunter or someone planted in his room by his mother (both distinct possibilities), but there was always a moment when people began looking at him differently. They started to find something—many somethings—to reinforce their suspicions that Gideon was repulsive in some way. Instinctual knowledge; prey responding to a threat, fight or flight, that sort of thing. They were always searching for some frayed edge to peel away, revealing evidence of whatever abomination was hidden underneath.


I can’t tell anyone, Gideon had thought, but especially not you.


“There’s something weird about you,” said Nico matter-of-factly. “Not bad-weird, just weird.” He folded his arms over his chest, considering it. “What’s your story?”


“I told you. Narcolepsy.”


Nico rolled his eyes. “Menteur.” 


Liar. So he really was planning to learn French, then.


“What’s ‘shut up’ in Spanish?” a former version of Gideon had asked in real life, and then Nico had given him a smile that Gideon would later learn was exceptionally dangerous.


“Get out of bed, Sandman,” had been Nico's response, tossing aside the covers. “We’re going out.”


Back in the present, or wherever someone could conceivably call a place where time did not exist, Max nudged Gideon’s knee with his nose, just hard enough that Gideon had to stumble upright and catch himself for balance. “Thanks,” he said to Max's unblinking look of boredom. “Nico’s this way."


He pointed west, toward a thick brush of still-blazing evergreens. Smoke wafted gingerly upwards, dissolving into distant clouds.


Max huffed his disapproval, pragmatically unwilling to singe his coat, so Gideon conjured a ball, tossing it into the woods.


“Fetch,” he said. 


The ball illuminated as it picked up speed, dousing the forest in what Gideon hoped would be a vibrant, reassuring glow. Max gave him another look of annoyance but darted ahead, following the path that Gideon’s magic had created. 


Everyone had magic in dreams; the limitations were not the laws of physics, but rather the control of the dreamer. Gideon, a creature who constantly wavered between consciousness and unconsciousness, had the benefit of lacking muscle memory where it came to the limitations of reality. (If you do not know precisely where impossibility begins and ends, then of course it cannot constrain you.)


Whether Gideon had magic or was himself magic was perpetually up for debate. Nico was adamant of the former, Gideon himself not so sure. He could scarcely perform even mediocre witchery when called upon in class, which was why he had stuck primarily to theoretical studies of how and why magic existed. Because Nico was a physicist, he saw the world in terms of pseudo-anatomical construction, but Gideon liked to think of it as something like a data cloud. That was all the dream realms were, in the end. Shared space for humanity’s experience.


He could sense that the real Nico was closer now, as the edge of the forest quickly dwindled to a thin stretch of vacant beach. Gideon bent to brush his fingers over the sand, confirming that it was, in fact, sand (once or twice it had been feathers and another, less pleasant time it had been teeth) and then he plunged an arm through it, testing. It disappeared up to the height of his shoulder, submerged in something of lesser density, which felt like empty air. Max, who was watching from a distance, let out a cautioning growl, intrinsically mistrustful of wherever Gideon’s appendage had gone. (Object permanence was always a bit of a weakness when Max was in dog form, but in this case his suspicions were probably merited.)


Gideon retracted his hand from the vacancy of wherever he was about to travel and reached over, offering Max a little chin scratch of assurance.


“Fine. You stay here,” said Gideon. “I’ll come get you in an hour or so.”


Max whined softly.


“Yeah, yeah, I’ll be careful. You’re really starting to sound like Nico these days, you know.”


Max barked.


“Alright fine, I take it back.”


Gideon knelt in the sand with a final roll of his eyes in Max's direction before submerging his hand again, this time following it through until he’d slid fully into the other side. Instantly there was a shift in pressure, high to low, and Gideon found himself tumbling headlong into more sand, dropping from the sky onto the rolling hills of an arid desert. 


He hit the sand face-first, managing to cough through an asphyxiating wave of vertigo. Gideon was not what one might call a lover of nature, having been exposed to a few too many of its less pleasant gifts within the realms. Were there worse things than sand? Yes, definitely, but Gideon didn’t think it was entirely out of line to find its effects to be offensive. He could feel it everywhere already, in the lining of his ears and in his teeth, taking residence in the rivulets of his sweat-sticky throat. Not ideal, but as ever, there was no point despairing over a mere modicum of discomfort. Not when worse things were probably still to come.


Gideon dragged himself upright, a first precarious step lost to the bowels of sand that rose to his calves. He forced himself steady and peered around at the dunes, bracing for something. What it would be, he had no idea. It was different every time.


A buzz in his right ear had him pivoting sharply (or trying to) with a yelp, swatting blindly at the air and tumbling backwards, onto his back. Anything but mosquitos—Gideon did not care for bugs. Another buzz and he flicked it away, this time suffering a needle-prick to his forearm. A welt was already starting to show, a plump tear of blood manifesting from the puncture. Gideon raised his arm to inspect the wound more closely, wiping it away.


So. Not bugs, then.


He rose to his feet with a grimace, simultaneously relieved and filled with dread. Knowing what kind of obstacle came next was usually a mixed blessing, because it meant that Gideon had both the ability and the necessity to plan his subsequent defense. Sometimes it was a matter of tactical entry, which was ideal. It had been combat before, or labyrinths; escape rooms and mazes and chases and fights. Those were difficult circumstances but preferable ones, for which Gideon was already well-equipped given the circumstances of his life. Other times it was merely about the sweat of it, the strain, and those were a matter of endurance. Gideon couldn’t die in dreams—no one could—but he could feel pain, his muscles could atrophy and he could thirst or feel hunger or suffer. Sometimes the test was just about clenching your jaw and outlasting, which even mortals could attest was the most difficult task of all.


This, it seemed, was one of those. 


Whatever tiny weapons were being fired at Gideon now were far too small to dodge and too quick to fight; probably nothing that could exist on earth or be operated by normal humans. Gideon took the blows like the unavoidable bites that they were and dove into the whip of the wind, closing his eyes to guard against the sting of sand. It mixed with his open wounds, blood streaking across his arms. He could see the blurs of red between slitted eyes, bright and relatively benign but still ugly. Like tear tracks on the statues of saints. 


Whatever telepath had set up these wards was without question a sadist of the highest order, Gideon thought before something pierced his neck, embedding in his throat, and his airstream was instantly compromised. Choking, he rushed to apply pressure to the wound, willing himself to regenerate faster. Dreams were not real, the damage was not real—the only thing real was the struggle, and that much he would give without question. That much he would always give, always, because in the deepest caverns of his heart, he knew it was justified. This was not only righteous, but owed.


The winds picked up, sand crusting his nose and lips and gluing itself to the folds of his eyes, and Gideon, tired and angry, let out a piercing, agonizing scream of exhaustion and sadness and rage. Ironically, that moment of desperation seemed to have done it. The second he opened his mouth, lungs blistering, the ground gave way in a slurp of capitulation before finally delivering him, mercifully, to the sudden vacancy of an empty cell.


“Oh good, you’re here,” said Nico with palpable relief, rising to his feet and approaching the bars that separated them. “I think I was having a dream about the beach or something.”


Gideon checked his arms for evidence of blood or sand, indulging a testing inhale for his lungs. Everything appeared to be in order, which meant that he had made it inside the Alexandrian Society’s wards for the hundred and eighteenth time. 


Each time was a little more nightmarish than the last. Each time, though, it was worth it.


“You look well,” Nico remarked in playful approval, leaning against the bars with his usual half-smirk of smuggery. “Very rested, as always.”


Gideon rolled his eyes. 


“I’m here,” he confirmed, and then, because it was what he’d come to say, he added, “And I think I might be close to finding Libby.”


THE PARADOX:


If power is a thing to be had, then it must be capable of possession. But power does not contain any discrete size or weight, and is instead continuous and parabolic. Say you have some power, which is to gain the capacity for more power, with your capacity increasing in relation to the power you have gained. Thus, to have power is to be increasingly powerless. 


If the more of it one has the less it has, then is it the thing or are you? 


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