‘And there’s no balancing element that’s trying to bring the world from chaos back to order?’
‘No. Either the dragons don’t know about that alternate, or they’re just staying well out of it.’ And what she didn’t say, as she was struggling to calm her own fears, was that without a balancing element, a corrupted world could tip all the way over into primal chaos. Nobody could be sure where the dividing line between chaos infestation and total absorption might lie. And she sure didn’t want to find out.
Kai frowned. ‘I thought – that is, we got told in basic orientation that the dragons always interfere if there’s a high chaos level. That they could bring a world back into line. That the worse it got, the more likely they were to interfere.’
‘Well, according to the records, there’s no sign of them there.’ It might be true that the dragons disliked chaos, being creatures of law and structure. Irene had received the same basic briefing as Kai. But that didn’t necessarily mean they were going to interfere wherever it was found. From her own personal experience with alternate worlds, Irene had come to the conclusion that dragons preferred to choose their battles carefully. ‘Perhaps the world’s Librarian will know a bit more. His name’s Dominic Aubrey. He’s got a cover job on the British Library staff. Head of the Classical Manuscripts section.’ She tilted her head to look at Kai. ‘Is something the matter?’
Kai shoved his hands further into his pockets. ‘Look, I know they tell us students the worst possible scenarios in orientation so that we won’t try anything stupid. And they probably make them seem even worse than they actually are, but a world with a high chaos infestation with no dragons to even start balancing it . . . sounds kind of risky for a first assignment for me and for . . .’
‘For a junior grade like me?’
‘You said it,’ Kai muttered. ‘I didn’t.’
Irene sighed. ‘For what it’s worth, I’m not happy either.’
‘So how bad is it?’
She considered running her hands through her hair, having a hysterical fit, and sitting down and not doing anything for the next few hours while she tried to figure out a way to avoid the job. ‘They have steam-level technology, though there was a side-note that recent “innovative advances” had been made. The chaos infestation is taking the form of folklore-related supernatural manifestations, with occasional scientific aberrancy.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘You can expect to find vampires. Werewolves. Fictional creations that go bump in the night. You might also find their technology working in unexpected ways.’
‘Oh well,’ Kai said with jaunty enthusiasm. ‘No problem there.’
‘I’m from a Gamma, remember? I’m used to figuring out magic. Even if I didn’t do it myself, we had to know how to work the system if we wanted to stay out of trouble. Magic always seems to involve taboos and prohibitions too. So all we have to do is work out what these are and then avoid them while we pick up the document or book. No problemo.’
Irene nodded. ‘So, high chaos infestation.’ The thought clearly worried her far more than it did Kai. Possibly because she’d had experience with a chaos infestation before and hadn’t enjoyed it at all.
Chaos made worlds act unreasonably. Things outside the natural order infested those worlds as a direct result. Vampires, werewolves, faerie, mutations, superheroes, impossible devices . . . She could cope with some spirits and magic, where both operated by a set of rules and were natural phenomena within their worlds. The alternate she’d just come from had very organized magic, and while she hadn’t actually practised it, it had at least made sense. She hoped that she could cope with dragons too. Again, they were natural to the order of all the linked worlds, a part of their structure rather than actively working to break down order.
She had no idea where to start coping with chaos. No one knew exactly how or why chaos broke through into an alternate – or maybe that knowledge was above her paygrade. But it was never natural to that world and seemed drawn to order so it could break it down, warping what it touched. It created things that worked by irrational laws. It infected worlds and it broke down natural principles. It wasn’t good for any world it entered, and it wasn’t good for the humanity in that world.
Even if it did make for good literature.
The Library had a whole set of quarantines for chaos infestations. But the one on this particular alternate was one of the most extreme she’d ever seen, while still permitting entrance. She wasn’t happy about taking a student along on the job, however well he thought he could handle things.
‘Pity Madame Coppelia didn’t give us more information,’ Kai remarked. ‘And don’t look at me like that. We’re both thinking the same thing, right? I’m just saying it so that you don’t have to.’
Irene nearly laughed. ‘Okay,’ she said. ‘We agree on that one. And we both agree it’s going to be bad, and neither of us really knows each other either. So it’s probably going to be messy, nasty and dangerous. Then if we do manage to get the manuscript, I’m sure it’ll be top-secret and we’ll be lucky to get any sort of mention of it on our records at all because everything will be buried in the files.’
‘Remind me why I took this job,’ Kai muttered.
‘People pointed guns at you. Right?’