Orphic Phantasia

49: The Other Side

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“No, but it’s not simple, either. For a start, you said Emily was watching, and that makes a big difference. Like I’ve been telling you,” she patted her open notebook, “the aether is based on people’s perceptions, so if Emily thought you were real, she wouldn’t have questioned what you were doing and the two sides, material and aethereal, would have been in sync. Without someone on the other side to confirm what you’re up to, though, all you’ll end up doing is moving the aether around.”

And she was right. When Dante returned to consciousness and scanned the room for the figurine, it was still sitting between there between them.

“See?” said Shelley. “And if you think that’s weird, just wait until we go outside.”

‘Weird’ was an understatement. As Dante stared into the schizophrenic chaos of Avalon’s aethereal shadow, spread out before him like a thousand split-second photographs jostling for dominance, he understood why Shelley sought solace in a place like the Scar.

“The wonders of modern technology,” she said, a heavy measure of sarcastic disdain in her voice. “Welcome to Paradise.”

Dante rubbed his eyes. Avalon’s basic foundations were there—the towers and the walkways, and the streets weaving around them—but everything else was a jumble of noise. One moment a floating screen displayed scenes from a recent tennis tournament, the next it was playing a lewd advert overlaid with a reminder to always check in at a cleansing clinic first thing in the morning.

“Don’t worry,” said Shelley, “I can’t make much sense of it either. Everyone out there sees something different because that chip in the back of their neck is pumping simulated rubbish into their brains. Doesn’t matter that none of it is real as far as the aether is concerned: if someone thinks something is there, it will be.”

Dante had to turn his back on it all before he spewed his aethereal dinner out over the aethereal garden. “Is there anywhere we can go that’s quiet?” he asked.

“Remember what happened the last time we tried that?” She fixed him with a glare but, with the rest of her face hidden in shadow, it was hard to tell if she meant it as a joke.

Hoping to drop the subject, he asked, “What about the beach?”

“So long as we stick to Seelie territory, we should be okay,” she replied, digging her hands into her coat pockets. “It’s been pretty quiet around here since those riots kicked off.”

“Riots?” Kat had mentioned something about an uprising when she visited him in hospital, but Dante had been too focused on his own troubles to ask anyone about it.

“And I thought I was an introvert. Yeah, there’s something going on down in the undertown. Last I heard, the guy who runs the place locked himself away and the locals want his head.” She shrugged. “Politics isn’t my strong subject.”

They passed out of the residential area and into the island’s so-called ‘Relaxation District’, which appeared to the aether an impressionistic painting of green fields dotted with vague blocks of buildings. Seelie officers, it seemed, had little time to relax and take in the scenery.

After a moment’s silence, Shelley added, “I heard he tried to have you executed.”

“Something like that.” Politics wasn’t exactly Dante’s area of expertise, either. “I wonder if it has anything to do with—”

Before he could finish, something tugged at his stomach and an intuitive swirl of anxiety caused him to turn around and look back the way they came.

He couldn’t see himself. His body, sitting in a trance, had vanished from his sight, and Seelie’s cluster of holiday villas was blurring into the disjointed, chaotic backdrop of Avalon.

“Looks like you’re at your limit,” said Shelley.

“It’s not that, it’s just…” Dante clutched his abdomen. What if somebody found their bodies, sitting in oblivious trance? Would the two of them jump back at the slightest disturbance? And wouldn’t that leave them disorientated and vulnerable? The more the questions piled up, the more that invisible force pulled at his insides.

“No, really, you’re at your limit,” said Shelley. “It’s okay to admit it, you know? You’re far enough away from your starting point that you’re not comfortable going any further. And it would have been even worse if you hadn’t visualised your body to start with, believe me.”

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The previous draft for Episode Six was almost entirely focused on these lessons, before I decided to shift to character drama…