Chapter 4 – Danger Days
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Chapter 4 – Danger Days


Théo slammed the door one, two, three, four times before closing his eyes, taking a deep breath and announcing: "Turns out I start working at the shop on Tuesday, and the hours are less horrible than I expected."

"Cool. Still, bartending again would have been nice, it really suits you," Ada replied, barely looking up from her book and turning down the volume of the Indochine playlist. Her planet tattoo swirled orange and yellow, almost serving as a mood ring.

"Are you kidding?" he said, tossing his shoes into the wardrobe. "The shop is great. They sell all kinds of weird and slightly mystical stuff, I'm allowed to have headphones if I want to, and they didn't ask me for my ID either. I told them I might break things by accident and explained the problem with my hands, and they told me it would be nice to have someone who knows his limits, can you believe that? Next time we see your friends, I swear, I'm buying them a round."

"They're our friends now, you know."

"I don't want to impose."

"Théo, you've known them for four years."

He shrugged and went to his room to put his bag away.

Ada's gaze followed him, and she smiled. The least one could say was that Théo was a strange man, and it had nothing to do with his scar or his fake fluorescent tooth. In spite of his abnormal too-there factor, she was under the impression he tried to leave the lightest possible imprint on the world around him, always apologizing for existing. His hands were a constant source of worry for him, as if they were weapons of mass destruction, and he usually kept them hidden in his pockets. He was reluctant to handle fragile objects, and whenever he did, he always held them as a child would hold a bird that had fallen from a nest.

He also suffered from a weird mix of agoraphobia and claustrophobia, and only felt safe in rooms with open doors - a real problem, in a shared flat. He couldn't stand complete silence either. On top of that, he had several repetition tics that helped him with his anxiety, but which also tended to make her anxious. In particular, he could only leave the flat if the door closed behind him with a specific sound that he deemed "perfect", and sometimes he would try six or seven times before he succeeded.

That being said, there was something incredibly charming about the way he kissed her several times before leaving until he felt he had done it right, and about the way he always touched her as if he feared he could break her into a million pieces.

She wasn't sure how to define their relationship. Flatmates? Mutual protectors? Friends with, uh, benefits? She didn't really see him as her boyfriend, and she also felt she didn't know enough about him to put any kind of defining word on the two of them. Several times she had wondered if he was an illegal immigrant or an ex-criminal, because his name wasn't consistent on his identity papers, and he tried to use them as little as possible, even if it meant only moonlighting. But that was none of her business, after all. At least she didn't have to live in a ridiculous single room flat anymore - two paychecks were better than one, even if her current job, still in an industrial lab, was better paid than when she started.

She continued to read her book and pressed the repeat button on the remote control. Indochine's 2033 immediately started playing again instead of moving on to the next track. Life wasn't perfect, but it was getting better. Yeah, she could see herself going on until 2033, too.

"It's not even the best song on their new album," Théo protested through the wall.


The water from the miniature fountain trickled over the polished stones before spiralling upwards in the air and falling back down again. A few colored LEDs shaped like dragonflies fluttered around it. Cyril, fascinated, plunged the tip of his index finger into the rising waterfall, no doubt trying to understand how it all worked.

"I said: look only with your eyes," Théo admonished him from behind the counter, where he was using a small can of blue paint to mark boxes.

The place where Théo was now working as a salesman was called the Alchemist Adder, which looked like a new-age shop, only a little more bizarre. For a start, on top of the little anti-gravity fountain, it sold all sorts of slightly incomprehensible objects, with no barcode or visible brand name; but that, at least, could be explained by their artisanal vibe. And the small size and age of the premises could be explained by the pressure of the Paris real estate market. No, the most curious aspect of the shop by far was that it was absolutely impossible to find it without the help of someone who had been there at least once. All the customers came by word of mouth. Leïla had only been able to find it via Ada, who had known about the place via Théo, who had heard about the job offer via Cyril, who himself had heard about it from Astro, and now it had become their favourite meeting spot in the whole city.

The ceiling disappeared under mobiles and paper kites representing strange creatures and insects. One shelf had jars of spices, which perhaps explained the heady smell. A table displayed all sorts of wooden puzzles, and Ada was pretty sure one of them had a non-Euclidean wooden cube in the middle. The shop's sound system was playing Théo's favourite albums, and these days he had a soft spot for post-rock music with extremely dense layers of sound - a far cry from the racket he used to endure as a bartender, and yet radical to eliminate any form of silence. In between two dozen books on how to grow kernels, better communicate with your parrot or make pacts with yourself to overcome depression, there was also a book explaining how to find 'parking meter lizards', listing points of interest at the crossing of 'sleeping ley lines', or teaching you 'how to decipher the secrets of the universe in the eyes of cats' in ten lessons.

Leïla did not seem satisfied with the selection on offer, and grumbled as she read the catalogue of available books. Her ear piercings had recently been enlarged, and a fine cloud of luminous golden particles emanated from them at all times now, as well as some very light white noise, like parasites on a radio. She kept fiddling with a bandage on her left palm - a bandage which, by the way, Ada was very worried about.

"Is there any way to order a specific book?" Leïla eventually asked as she walked back to the counter, accompanied by her pet parasitic noise, which at times almost covered the colourful waves of the God Is An Astronaut track.

Théo emitted a whistling 'tssssk' noise through his neon blue tooth. "Do I look like a Fnac1 salesman?"

She leaned with both hands on the counter, and the corners of her mouth turned up in an animalistic way. She must have done something to her mouth too. Was it normal to see the molars of someone smiling? And - wait a minute, had she had her side incisors trimmed to points? In contrast to her attitude, her answer was very calm and measured: "Never mind. The stuff I'm looking for is hard to find, anyway. It’s a self-help book about the stars and stuff."

The sound of a leaking tap was heard in the back of the shop, and Théo cried out "WHAT DID I JUST TELL YOU, CYRIL?" as he rushed to see what had happened to the fountain.

Ada couldn't take her eyes off Leïla. From the moment she had met her over six years ago, she had had this kind of magnetic effect on her, and this fascination had only become more and more morbid as the body modifications Leïla was inflicting on herself became more extreme. Of course, all her other friends also had tattoos and piercings, including herself, and the process seemed to almost always be a reappropriation of one's body after a significant or unpleasant event, a form of personal victory, of restorative reconstruction - but in Leïla's case, it seemed to be gradually destroying her, devouring more and more of her body. It was as if she was trying to reach something buried under her flesh by excavating it like an archaeologist, site after site, layer after layer, trying to go to the depths of her being to reveal a critical mass of suffering.

Ada gently took Leïla's hand and turned it over to examine her bandage. Her stomach was in knots due to what it implied. Her friend's eyes glowed feverishly. "You'll see, when it's all healed, you won't believe how cool it is."

"Is that a tattoo?" Of course it wasn't. She was asking on principle. The answer terrified her in advance.

"It's an Access."

Ada felt nauseous. "…Through a hand?"

"I'll do the other hand later."

A taste of bile in her throat. She gently squeezed Leïla's hand in both of hers, and tried to broach the subject. "Don't you think this is going a little too far? Maybe you should stop before it gets really dangerous. We like you just the way you are, you know."

Leïla pulled her hand away as if she'd been burned, and the static from her Accesses changed frequency. "Ada," - her voice sounded like she was telling a joke and her mouth smiled, but her eyes pierced right through her - "my body is a temple. I am its high priestess. And if I want to smash the stained glass and tag all the walls, that's my business."

There was some movement behind her back and Cyril was suddenly standing there, looking sheepish, one shoe soaked. When Ada turned back to Leïla, she was already near the door: "I've got to go. See you on Discord!"


"We need to do something."

"About what?" asked Cyril, typing on his phone. They'd managed to find three seats together on the train, for once.


Théo removed his own earphones as gently as if they were painted eggshells. "You too, eh? Have you seen her teeth? I thought she was going to bite my nose off."

"I'm starting to regret not having done something years ago when she started this whole Flowers thing," Ada admitted, looking out the window. "This shit has gotten out of hand and it's destroying her. Do you think we should contact her family?"

"Which one?" said Cyril as he put his phone away.

"What do you mean which one?"

"Well, she's got an aunt near Toulouse, I think, but that's all. She used to be in foster care and everything. Really bad stuff happened to her back there. She never told to you about it?"

Ada felt like punching the window. She really was the worst possible friend. Why did she always learn this kind of information from outside sources?

"I think she felt left out for too long because we didn't understand what she was doing," Cyril said. "We should have tried to figure it out earlier. Maybe it's not too late yet."

"Do you think we should go to one of their weird meetings? I don't really want to, but maybe it'll help her get close enough to us to calm things down. I hear they're accepting people without an Access now."

Cyril looked embarrassed and settled back in his seat a little. "I have one."

She felt as if she'd missed a step down a flight of stairs. "What do you mean you have one?"

He lifted his hair to show her a hole through the middle of his left ear. Through it, the colours seemed to be reversed. He seemed mortified. "It was after an argument with Astro a while ago. At the time it seemed like a better idea than, uh, well, you know."

She already knew that he and Astro were taking a break from each other, and that Cyril's family had literally cut all ties with him, but that was about it. She felt betrayed. They'd been friends for ten years now, they were twenty-five, but after all this time, he was still trying to hurt himself, and hiding serious stuff from her. She wanted to scream.

"Oh yeah. Okay. So basically no one ever tells me anything," she spat instead.

"Ada -"

"With friends like that, I don't need enemies."

"Ada, listen -"

She snapped at Théo, who until then had just looked at them worryingly: "And you, what are you not telling me? You’re an alien? You’re a secret agent on the government's payroll?"

His eyes widened, but he didn't answer and put his headphones back in his ears as if he was trying to avoid the rest of the fight. A few passengers were beginning to stare at them.

"Ada," Cyril said softly, eyes to the floor, "Ada, listen - when people say serious stuff like that, you always get mad. And then you go ballistic, and you break things, and you hurt yourself."

She stared at him, confused. Her gaze went down to Cyril's arms, then to the operation scar on her own wrist.




Eighteen tabs were open, and she had been clicking on the same three since the beginning of the evening, hesitating over the 'join' button on the Flowers Discord that Leïla regularly sent her, hoping to see that her fears were unfounded, but dreading the worst.

She kept turning over and over in her head what Cyril had said on the train.

Those were fits of anger, nothing more. No? Weren’t they? Why hadn't she been able to get rid of them when her teenage years were so far gone now? Were her friends hiding serious things from her because they were afraid of her, or rather because she might hurt herself? It was normal to repress her constant inner screaming until it exploded, wasn't it? Especially given the current state of the world, right? It had to come out once in a while, right? Wasn't that a normal female impulse?

Yeah, sure. The typical female impulse to want to scream until you rip your vocal cords out and throw them up on the wall, but which you repress out of politeness, so as not to disturb anyone.

Totally normal.

Until then, she thought she was playing the role of the stable friend who surrounds herself with slightly damaged people in the hope of helping them, but the illusion was cracking. Did everyone in their little group believe they were the "normal friend"? Cyril, who still hadn't completely overcome the marks left by a ten-year-old depression; Leïla, who was losing her physical integrity by trying so hard to find herself; Astro, who spent his time sabotaging all his relationships as if to punish himself; what about Théo that his disintegrating identity wasn't already proclaiming loudly? Could the five of them even be one functioning adult?

Deep down, you know we are connected by something darker.

She clicked on the link. Maybe it wasn't too late to fix things together. She would not leave Leïla behind.

The "welcome" channel had a very short list of fairly mundane rules, except for the last two: "Thrive in the dark to reach your own light" and "Stars are listening." A bot named, with an icon cropped from the cover of the Riddle of the Sphinx single, sent her a message asking her to add a reaction to choose her pronouns - the list was rather long, and she giggled a little. Oddly enough, some of the 'pronouns' were special characters. She raised one eyebrow at "☼" and the second at "▒". She clicked on the reaction for 'she/her', and her username turned apple green.

There were fewer channels than she would have thought; one for irl reunions announcements, one for image sharing, one related to Midnight Blossom although the band had broken up three years prior, a chat room, and two with cryptic names, 'garden' and 'quotes'. The former turned out to be a chat room where anyone could talk about their worries without polluting the main discussion, and where a few other members offered moral support - oddly enough, the only message pinned was a snippet of lyrics from a Bring Me The Horizon song that had just been released a month prior: "Don't you know I'm a seed? I won't stop at the roof / Go ahead, bury me; this is how I grow, it's how I thrive." The other one was more cryptic, with a variety of texts, all posted by moderators; sometimes there were just a few words or a single sentence (one message said in large, stylized letters "Flying is falling in reverse; Going up or down is a matter of perspective"), sometimes there were entire lists of seemingly unrelated words, and sometimes there were song lyrics accompanied by music videos.

The most recent message was a video filmed on a mobile phone by an audience member at the very last gig Midnight Blossom ever played before breaking up, at Eden Project in 2015; by this time, Ada had only just begun to settle in her first job and get her bearings in the year and a half since she started living on her own, and many of her interests had taken a bit of a back seat - she hadn't followed the drama around the band's breakup at all and had just heard about "a divergence of artistic vision" between the Foxes and the rest of the band. The quality of the video was very poor, but it was apparently the last song the band played at that gig, after an encore. She was expecting one of the classics from their old albums or, given the circumstances, a deep cut from the Extinction Event album, but to her surprise, it was a cover of an obscure Placebo song, Hold On To Me.

Even through the digital compression, the band's charm was still working its magic. The synth rose and fell in soft, colourful waves, rocking the crowd like a small boat on the ocean. It was a very melancholy song, sung by Cecil Fox in his lower register, which he had managed to polish over the years despite his initial tendency to scream like a banshee. Ada found herself overcome by a sense of disenchantment - this band had been with her every step of the way for years, they had vanished while she was busy looking the other way, and this cover seemed to her to be some kind of epitaph to a whole past phase of her life. The crowd seemed to feel something similar; the video briefly showed audience members crying or hugging each other.

The song turned into a slow progression of slightly mournful chords as Cecil Fox, perched on an amp, both hands clutching his microphone, head bent down as if he were about to jump off a bridge, recited the outro of the original song. She had never paid much attention to it, but a French translation had been posted to accompany the video. It was long and sounded like a weird mystical rant, with sentences like "Our task is to transform ourselves into awakened multidimensional beings, thus fully merging the fourth and fifth dimensions to the third ," "Remembering that we are Angels incarnate, vast starry beings of Light, who are no longer limited and bound by the illusions of time, space and matter", "The new doorways cannot be opened or passed through by any of us still operating as individual beings of consciousness," or "It is the step beyond the known dimensional universe, it is a journey into the unknown which shall lead us ever closer to home."

She went to check if this was a Foxes addition, but no, it was already there in the original song. She read and reread the strange sentences, feeling increasingly puzzled.

Someone suddenly mentioned her username in the chat room.

Passiflora MajorToday at 09:55 PM

Welcome Da Chemistry!! I'm so glad you're finally here! Better late than never ((ヽ(๑╹◡╹๑)ノ))♬

Her heart raced. The username was Passiflora Major, written in fuchsia pink, with an administrator role. It had to be Leïla.

Da ChemistryToday at 09:55 PM

Hi Passiflora, thanks for the warm welcome. I'm exploring a bit, I'm still a bit lost

Passiflora MajorToday at 09:56 PM

No problem!! We're here to help!

Da ChemistryToday at 09:57 PM

There are fewer channels than on most of the servers I'm on

Passiflora MajorToday at 09:58 PM

That's normal, roles in green don't have access to most of the channels ღゝ◡╹)ノ♡

She had to be the last person on Earth to continue using these emotes in the year of our Lord 2018.

KodeToday at 10:02 PM


EsperaticToday at 10:03 PM


Da ChemistryToday at 10:03 PM

Hi everyone

Passiflora MajorToday at 10:04 PM

I'm so glad you're here (ノ◕ヮ◕)ノ*:・゚✧
Will you come to our irl meeting on 05/10? It's on a Friday afternoon so I know it's not convenient for everyone

She hesitated. It was almost too easy.

Da ChemistryToday at 10:06 PM

Is it okay if I come with the rest of the gang?

Passiflora MajorToday at 10:06 PM

Of course sweetie! I'll send you the code via pm! Can't wait to see you there 。^‿^。

She noted the date. She would have to ask for half a day off at her job. She also needed to convince the others, because there was no way she was going to go on her own. She’d already had her fair share of that, thank you very much.

And above all, there was no way she was going to let herself be convinced to get an Access.

There was a knock on her bedroom door and she was startled. Théo came in, wearing one of the old joggings he used as pyjamas, holding two mugs of tea, and he sat down on the chair where Ada had put all her dirty laundry, leaving the door open. "We need to talk about something," he said, handing her one of the mugs. He'd taken off his prosthetic tooth to clean it, and the "S" was a little hissy.

She closed the laptop and took the mug. "I promise I won't get mad if you're really an alien," she said in an attempt to lighten the mood, but his smile was a bit forced.

He blew on his tea, took a sip askew (he was only using the right side of his mouth to eat, perhaps since his mysterious accident), and sighed. She could almost feel gears turning in his head, looking for the right sentence. Finally, he spoke, looking at the door. "I told you I was wanted by my former employers, and that they had a lot of influence, didn't I?" She nodded. "I tried not to say anything when you mentioned secret agents on the train but-"

She coughed as she drank.

"But I, uh. Yeah. I was doing research for some kind of secret foundation," he continued. He hesitated. "I was studying dangerous stuff. Really dangerous stuff. I didn't want to tell you about that, but we've known each other for too long and they won't go into detail about my entourage if they find me. So I'd rather you knew about it."

She stared at him for a good five seconds. As usual, he looked a little too there, as if the resolution was better in his corner of the room. In fact, the information didn't change anything she already suspected. "I thought you were an ex-mafioso or an illegal immigrant," she confessed.

A humorless laugh burst out of his mouth. "Sometimes I wish I were, I think. But you seem to be taking it well."

"You were literally homeless back when we met, so I assumed there was something dark behind that, okay? In fact, I like that version better than the ex-dealer's." He snorted, and she continued, "You mentioned some dangerous stuff you were studying? What was it?"

Strangely, his gaze dipped to his own tattooed arms, and he gingerly placed his mug on the nearest cabinet. "Things… that weren’t normal. Things that could, uh, alter reality." His hands clenched convulsively several times. "Even you've noticed I'm not at the normal level of Hu- that I'm not quite normal myself. I'm too visible, I break things, I can lift things that are too heavy for me -" She nodded slowly. "And I'm all, uh, empty."

"What do you mean, empty? How could you be empty?"

"I feel empty. I try to fill the emptiness with noise and music but it doesn't work very well. There's still a big nothing in there. The things that interested me - that, that I used to be able to do - playing the piano, shit, Ada, I used to play the piano so well, I used to love it so much - all the things that used to define me - I, I don't know how to do them anymore. Something drained me." He stared at the door as if he feared it would slam shut on its own, pointing silently for a few moments at the scar that had ravaged his face, and he finally stammered: "Something anomalous got into, uh, into my head and I, I had to-"

"And you had to get it out," Ada whispered, both horrified and fascinated. He nodded and hid his face in his hands.

She should have thought it was completely absurd, or not believed him at all, but she'd never really been able to explain all the general weirdness about him, and lately in particular it seemed to her that the boundaries of what was possible and what wasn't were getting thinner and thinner. Now that he said it, she could almost see the traces of the stabbing wounds he had inflicted on himself, perhaps with some kind of pick or awl - every crater became an attempt at self-trepanning, every fold revealed itself as a revolt of his body against the attack. The angular tattoos on his arms now seemed like an abstract version of the violence he had suffered, and his neon blue rings piercing him left and right, an attempt to regain control of the narrative around his half-destroyed face.

How desperate did someone have to be to try to crack their own skull open several times?

"You must think I'm a raving lunatic," he said through his hands. His "S" continued to hiss.

She got up, and stood facing the chair. "I believe you." He looked up, and she added, "You know, I don't know what to believe anymore. I thought I was a rational person, but between your job at the shop that nobody can find and Leïla's fucking Accesses, I'm having more and more trouble staying so. There's stuff I can't explain, but I can at least live with it. So I believe you."

He looked as if he wanted to start a sentence, searched for the first word, gave up, and he hugged her instead, as hard as he dared to with his anomalous strength - since he was sitting and she was standing, they looked completely ridiculous.

"Thank you," he said, half-muffled against her striped pyjamas.

"You're welcome," she said, combing Théo's red curls back a little since she didn't know what else to do with her arms.

He sniffed, finally letting go of her, and got up, taking his empty mug with him. He looked like he was holding back a good cry, and it was very contagious. "And if this whole Access and Flowers thing gets too… well… too big, we need to talk about it again, because I've been doing some research on them and I might have a solution," he added from the hallway.

She looked at her closed laptop warily.


"Okay. Let's recap."

In the end, Cyril and Astro had both agreed to come with her. She hadn't dared to tell Théo about their rescue plan, which consisted of crashing the Flowers irl meetings until they could convince Leïla to stop before it went too far - according to Ada, it had probably already gone too far, but it was hard to tell without immersing yourself in the environment first. She wondered how the other two would manage being there together despite their "break", but from what little she could see, they had decided to keep their verbal exchanges to a minimum. No doubt, they were still on bad terms.

"We're not here to listen to them, we're here to support Leïla so that she remembers that she has friends outside of this cult thing. We go there, we observe, and we advise," Ada listed.

"Fine with me," Astro replied. Cyril looked like he was about to add something, but he thought better of it.

The meeting was on the premises of an old disused city hall in the 94 département. The building was clearly due to be demolished soon, which was not very reassuring, and looked a bit like a squat - even the tags were falling off the walls along with the outside cladding.

Ada's gaze lingered on a message which had been spray-painted in blue on the ground near the car park, which read in large capital letters "OJAI SYND." with several arrows pointing to the building. Curiously, Astro paused when he saw it, reached into his jacket pockets (she noticed that his shirt of the day was the grim reaper looking at a watch, under the caption "Death Can Wait"), and he followed them, muttering to himself.

A tall bald guy with red glasses was smoking at the entrance of the building, and shifted in front of the door when he saw them coming. Probably the guy who was acting as a bouncer. On closer inspection, whatever he was smoking must have been highly illegal, given the very suspicious black smoke emanating from it. "I'll have to ask for your invitations," he said before sucking in the smoke, which came out purple through an Access in his nose. Ada fumbled in her bag and showed a private message from Leïla on her phone, Astro unfolded a printed version of the code that was in the message he'd received, and Cyril… Cyril only now realised that he had left his phone at home.

"Are you serious?" muttered Ada, who didn't feel like leaving him outside, but even less like going in only with Astro, who had been quite distant and unpleasant with them lately, and not just because of his relationship problems with Cyril - something he immediately confirmed by making an extremely tasteless joke at his expanse.

"Come on, give the man your arm so he can scan the barcode, Cyril."

Ada's stomach churned. Cyril didn't answer, but seemed a little shaken. He lifted his hair to show the bouncer the Access in his ear in lieu of an invitation, and the bouncer finally stepped aside to let them in.

The ground floor was cluttered with old tables, metal fences and various bits of rubbish - it looked as if it had been used as the town hall's storage area once the village hall had closed, and it looked complicated to navigate. Despite its dilapidated appearance, the place still looked relatively functional, with most of its neon lights intact and on, the fire exits lit (had the Flowers restored the power?), and there was even a smoke detector with an LED flashing at regular intervals. Someone had spray-painted the Midnight Blossom lotus logo in neon pink near the staircase, along with an arrow.

Cyril went first and quickly put some distance between them and himself, rubbing his arm reflexively.

"Did you really have to tell him that kind of crap? What did he do to you?" whispered Ada to Astro as she walked towards the steps. To her surprise, he looked a little affected himself, and was frowning with a genuinely sad look on his face. "It's complicated," he said, "and I'm not sure this is the best time to talk about it."

She stopped at the foot of the stairs and grabbed him by the sleeve before he could start to climb them. "Apologise to him."

"I can't."

The very familiar urge to explode something was beginning to arise, but she settled for a simple "And why is that?"

"Because…" Astro glanced at Cyril, who had turned the corner of the stairs without waiting for them. He sighed and began to whisper. "Because if I apologise, he'll think I want us to get back together, whereas if I look like a bastard, he'll eventually move on without regret, okay?"

Ada let go of his jacket. She was holding back from slapping him with all her might. "That's the worst justification I've ever heard."

"He deserves better than me, and since he doesn't understand it, I'm trying to speed things up. It's for his own good," Astro objected as he started to climb.

She pushed him aside and climbed the steps two at a time to try to catch up with Cyril. "So your solution is to be an asshole to him but 'for his own good', eh?"


"Get out of my way."


The meeting was taking place in a second, mostly empty room upstairs, with a lower ceiling. Someone had set up an amp that played a slow-motion instrumental, scented candles were burning in glasses all over the place, and a large circle had been drawn in chalk on the floor. Leïla, who had smiled with all her teeth when they arrived, was visibly acting as mistress of ceremony, and was wearing black leather gloves in addition to her favourite outfit, and a pink t-shirt with the Midnight Blossom logo in the shape of a neon lotus. She had arranged the sixty or so people present in two arcs, the Flowers sitting on one side of the room and the Buds on the other. Ada still hadn't managed to figure out what made a person fit into this or that category, but Leïla seemed to be able to determine it at a glance. She had also made them sit in a specific order, and Ada’s little group was separated.

They'd started with a speech ("for the Buds", Leïla had said) recited in turn by several Flowers, which reiterated many of the points of the pdf that had partially circulated on Reddit four years prior; the fact that they were there to turn negative impulses into positive ones, become the best version of themselves, and all that. Several of the people reciting the text wore glasses with coloured lenses, and almost all of them had at least one visible Access - in an ear, for most of them, but some had one through the nose, or lips. Most disturbingly, the last guy who spoke, a guy barely over 18, had one going through both of his cheeks, and his voice sounded very strange, almost whirring. He finished by explaining that the Buds would become Flowers only by converting all their negativity into positivity, and ascending together to a better existence in a higher dimension.

This was nothing new to her, but Ada hated lyrical metaphors, and she was beginning to think that coming to this meeting had been a big mistake.

"Great, thanks, Anthony," Leïla said as she turned to the other half of the circle, the slight white noise coming from her Accesses now more noticeable. "For those of you wondering, by the way, none of this is a metaphor. It's completely real."

Ada snorted. How could this New Age bullshit about ascending to a higher existence NOT be a metaphor? Her gaze swept over the rest of the Buds, and she found that most of them were either puzzled or politely interested. A couple of them, however, seemed quite fascinated, and she was surprised to count Cyril among them.

Patience, she told herself. We can all have a serious talk with Leïla when this is over.

"We're going to move on to the breathing exercises, if you don't mind," Leïla said, picking up a candle in a glass and sitting cross-legged between the two arcs. "Close your eyes. We're all going to breathe together, and you'll feel better, you'll see." Ada complied, still unconvinced. "Visualise your head, and imagine the colour black. Breathe in… and out."

She wanted to snicker, but she held back out of politeness.

"Visualise your shoulders, and imagine the colour purple. Breathe in… and out."

She must have looked perfectly ridiculous.

"Visualise your lungs, and imagine the colour red. Breathe in… and out."

It was true that she felt a little calmer, though.

"Visualize your belly, and imagine the colour pink. Breathe in… and out."

Fuck, this bullshit was working.

"Visualise your legs, and imagine the colour orange. Breathe in… and out."

She was feeling really good now.

"Visualise your feet, and imagine the colour yellow. Breathe in… and out."

She was almost floating.

"Visualise the air around you, and imagine it as white, almost golden. Breathe in… and out. Now open your eyes again," Leïla said in rhythm with the ambient instrumental coming from the amps.

Ada opened her eyes again. She may have been sitting on linoleum, but she felt as if she were on a tiny boat sailing across a landscape where everything was moving and bright. With her flickering candle, Leïla looked like a lighthouse that prevented her from getting lost. "You are calmer now. You feel lighter." That was true, Ada acknowledged inwardly. "You are getting better," Leïla continued, "and you will continue to get better; you have no other choice."

Wait, what did she mean by "no other choice"?

"Now that I have your full attention," she continued, "I'm going to explain in more detail what we're going to do. All those times you tried to hurt yourself, it was because you wanted to let out something dark that was eating away at you from the inside. What you didn't realise until today was that this wasn't a metaphor either. You just didn't have the right method to let it out." The white noise grew louder and synchronized with the music. "Breathe in… and out. Now, I want you to think of everything negative in your life as noxious smoke, and we're all going to breathe in the bright golden air that fills this room, into our lungs, and exhale the negative smoke in return. Breathe in…"

Ada closed her eyes, visualized the yellow-orange sky of the imaginary planet she'd gotten a tattoo of, and inhaled deeply.

"…And out."

She heard exclamations of surprise and opened her eyes again. All the members of the Flowers without exception had dense black smoke coming out of their mouths or noses.

Before Ada could react or say anything, Leïla clapped her hands in delight and walked over to Cyril - who, she only realised now, was also exhaling his own black smoke, mouth wide open. "I knew it! I had a feeling we'd have a new Flower today!" she exclaimed as she made him stand up, looking astonished at what had just happened to him. Astro, on the other hand, looked deeply shocked.

"Stop, stop, stop," Ada said as Leïla hugged Cyril in the middle of the circle. "What just happened?"

"It worked, did you see that?" he exclaimed over Leïla's shoulder. "Try it again, it might work for you too!"

"No way," Ada blurted out as she stood up hurriedly. "Let's go, right, Astro? Let's get out of here. Come on."

"What?" said Leïla, who seemed genuinely confused. "But we've hardly started! You came here to get better, it works for him, and now you want to leave?"

Other members of the group had begun to talk amongst themselves, and a slight hubbub was now filling the room. "Come on, Cyril, let's get out of here," Ada insisted.

Cyril stared at her. "No," he said after a moment's hesitation, "I'm staying. I feel better now that it's out. I want to do it again."


"I haven't felt this good in years, okay? This is the first time I've really felt better," he begged. Leïla and several Flowers were now glaring at Ada.

Ada was about to retort something when the bouncer came running into the room, out of breath, surrounded by his own purple smoke, and shouted "CODE F! FUCKING CODE F! EVERYONE GET OUT!" The Flowers scrambled to their feet, some still spewing their strange black smoke, which had gathered on the ceiling instead of dissipating and was beginning to seriously darken the room. "DON’T TAKE THE STAIRS!" the man added, "THERE'S A WHOLE LOT OF AGENTS OUT THERE! I'VE BARRICADED WITH THE MESS DOWNSTAIRS BUT IT’S NOT GOING TO BUY US MUCH TIME!"

Everyone was on their feet now, and some of the candles were being knocked over. Some of the Buds ignored that last remark and ran for the stairs. Others ran straight for the fire exit. "What's code F? Firefighters?" asked Ada, but Leïla was too busy frantically removing her leather gloves.

"ATTENTION, EVERYONE WHO REMAINS," she shouted as she stuffed the gloves into her pockets, "WE’RE GOING TO LEAVE THROUGH AN ACCESS! IF YOU'VE NEVER DONE IT BEFORE, CLOSE YOUR EYES, IT MAY LOOK ALARMING, BUT IT'S SAFE, I PROMISE!" She spread her arms like a magician about to reveal the highlight of her show, and Ada couldn't help but yelp in surprise. She should have expected it, though.

Leïla had a hole through each palm, and they glowed almost as bright as neon lights.

She grinned, baring all her teeth, and before Ada could recover from the shock, Leïla pulled on the five fingers of her left hand one after the other as if she were trying to start a lawnmower, and they spread out on all sides until the Access was more than a meter wide. The brightness was almost blinding, but there was a vaguely discernible landscape on the other side, a landscape full of -

- things that looked like land corals, like -

There was a dreadful noise downstairs, as if someone was trying to force the door open in the most frontal and brutal way possible. Astro had gone to look through a window and came back running, hurling a string of all kinds of insults.

Leïla had turned very pale but had not lost her almost crazed smile. "GET OUT, I SAID, GO, GO!" she exclaimed, and the bouncer as well as several of the Flowers passed through the portal without hesitation - whichever way they went, they disappeared altogether, and gradually enlarged the Access by leaning on the fingers as they passed through. Other Buds decided that the stairs didn't seem such a bad idea after all, and scrambled to flee. The rush was quite intense, and in the panic Ada caught a glimpse of Cyril, his eyes glued to her, who was walking through the opening in Leïla's hand, looking both elated by what was happening and deeply disappointed that Ada wasn't following him.

Within a very chaotic minute, there were only three of them left in the room.

The smoke detector began to scream. It was almost unbelievable that it hadn't gone off earlier.

Leïla still looked very pale and feverish, her distended hand twitching convulsively, as if her body was rebelling against the space anomaly but losing the battle. She nodded to invite them to follow the others, but Astro stood cautiously back, and the prospect of passing through a quartered hand terrified Ada even more than the noises coming from outside - she stood still as a deer in front of a car's headlights.


The door to the ground floor had begun to give way. Leïla, her forehead drenched in sweat, raised her tortured hand above her own head, then brought it down to the floor in one fell swoop; at least, that's what should have logically happened, but in the space of a second, her entire body passed head first through her own palm, folding up on itself like an Escher dragon, and she disappeared in a shower of glittering sand particles. Ada's throat was so tight that instead of another cry of surprise, she only emitted some sort of high-pitched hiss.

She turned to Astro, who was frantically searching the inside pockets of his leather jacket while continuing to spout a collection of insults. He pulled out a cloth handkerchief which he began to unfold. "I don't have any other option, and I don't have time to explain. It might scare you too. Do you trust me?"

Another loud creak, audible above the howl of the smoke detector. If the door downstairs wasn't already broken, it had to be done by now. "Do you trust me or not?" repeated Astro, spreading the handkerchief, or rather the tablecloth now, on the floor.

"No. Yes. I don't know," stammered Ada. The tablecloth was grey, except for a large black circle in the centre, outlined with gold embroidery resembling the edge of a well. Astro held out his hand, looking terribly worried, searching her face for an answer. "…Yes," she finally replied. She took his hand, which was shaking even more than hers.

Hurried footsteps on the stairs. Voices.

"You remember Burt's drawings in Mary Poppins?" he said hastily, looking over his shoulder.

"When they jump into the draw-" Ada began, but he had already leapt forward and she felt herself falling after him.

The ground was two metres lower than her calculations, in a place that was lit only by a circular hole above her head, and she landed awkwardly with a yelp, narrowly missing spraining her ankles. Before she could try to figure out what had just happened, Astro reached through the hole in the ceiling and pulled what appeared to be the tablecloth inside, repeating "shit shit shit-". He struggled for a moment, as if someone was pulling the cloth in the other direction, all the while yelling, "LET GO OF IT YOU FUCKING BAST-" - but the opening suddenly disappeared, and they found themselves in complete darkness. Only their breathing could be heard anymore.

Ada took her led key ring out of her bag. It shone barely enough to see about two metres of stone walls, an uneven, worn and polished floor, and Astro, who was shaking like a leaf and trying to fold the tablecloth back into its handkerchief form. A dozen or so questions were rattling around in her head, but a silly "Are you all right?" came out first.

Astro took a deep breath, like someone desperately trying to avoid an anxiety attack, and finally replied, "Yeah, but give me a minute, okay? Pause. Time out."

She turned the light from the key ring in his direction so that he could better see how to fold the handkerchief - in doing so, she illuminated a small niche in the wall, containing what looked like a notebook held open by rusty clamps embedded in the stone - no, more like wrought iron claws. Ada moved to get a better look. The left-hand page was covered with names, almost always the same ones: "A. Sépulcre, A. Sépulcre, A. Sépulcre & C. Chantreux", and, just now, before her eyes, "A. Sépulcre & +1" was being written by an invisible hand. Astro followed her gaze, read the page, and distinctly enunciated: "Correction: Ada De Sousa". A hasty scribble was added over the "+1", followed by "A. De Sousa". New questions were added to her mental list.

Astro tucked the handkerchief into his jacket and started walking. "I'm sorry. I'll explain on the way. This area barely gets any visits and the local archivist is super suspicious, so I had to give your name."

Her by far least priority question came first. "Wait. Stop. Let's rewind a bit. Astro Sépulcre is your real name?"

"Yeah? I thought you already knew that. You friended me on Facebook years ago," he said as he walked along the walls of the passageway, touching some stones which had been spray-painted with a tag.

She hesitated a moment as the argument seemed absurd. "Everyone puts anything on Facebook. Nobody is called Astro Sépulcre."

"Well, there's me, for a start."

"What were your parents smoking?"

"My mother loved Astro Boy."

The walls of the corridor became more regular and reinforced with beams. They passed a shelf cut into the wall with a scroll rack that was falling apart.

"I guess I owe you an explanation but I really don't know where to start," Astro admitted.

"We fell down the well drawing on your handkerchief, didn't we?" she asked, before feeling stupid, both because it was the only possible explanation and because it made no sense.

"Yeah. It's a portable Way to safety, but normally I have to warn beforehand, or use it only as a last resort. I guess not getting caught by Jailers counts as an emergency and they won't be too upset. Anyway, I'd already talked to this sector’s archivist about you a few times after Cyril started making trips with me, and we'd planned to bring you up to speed on all this just before… our, er, break-up, which messed everything up. So it should be fine. Too bad I have to do this in a hurry for you, but oh well."

Her breathing had almost returned to normal. "Wait… That’s the thing you weren't allowed to talk to me about, all this time?"


She stopped. "Astro, if you’re gonna tell me you're a wizard or something and you never told me because I'm a Muggle, I swear I'm gonna punch you in the face."

His high-pitched laugh echoed down the corridor. "You really did read too much Harry Potter as a teenager."

"Don’t pretend your handkerchief here has a super logical scientific explanation."

"Well, it does, it's a hole in reality, and it leads here."

"'A hole in reality' isn’t science, no. Just… no."

"Well, okay, I guess it's a little magical around the edges," he admitted, tucking a strand of hair behind his ear. A faint glow bathed the end of the hallway and the walls had begun to be covered with shelves. Ada switched off the key ring.

"You mentioned an archivist earlier. Are we in a library?"

"We're in THE Library."


Years ago, Cyril had told her the place couldn't be described with words. She was beginning to understand why.

"Don't touch anything, don't ask people too many questions, we'll just check something quickly and go back home in a minute," Astro had told her just before entering a gigantic room filled with shelves covered with books connected by walkways, under a vault that seemed to be made of stained glass from some angles, and of intertwined branches from others. Ada had tried to stop several times to assess the size of the place or to examine something more closely, but Astro was walking very fast, and she was afraid to lose sight of him. Once her shock had somewhat passed, the anxiety took over again when she realised that Cyril, who had also gone through some kind of anomalous portal, had not arrived at the same place as them.

They wandered for a while between two rows of gigantic shelves, in the middle of some sort of makeshift camp that could have been called a shanty town if the objects used to build it didn't all look like drawers, ladders and historical tapestries. In one corner, people had made a fire out of old clothes and were cooking curry in a pot. A guy perched on a stack of three chairs waved as they passed - he was wearing an old crimson suit and a wooden mask with a row of red bookmark ribbons. Briefly, she thought she saw something with many legs crawling on a shelf, but by the time she turned her head to look at the creature, it had already disappeared.

"Heyyyyy Astro!" exclaimed a punkette who carried a huge bottle of ink and had a large chameleon on her head, with its paws stuck in her ears like headphones. "Hi, Nettle," replied Astro, apparently not surprised by the lizard's presence. "You wouldn't happen to know where we can find Errare? I have an urgent question. We've just run from people who open Ways in their own bodies, but I don't think they lead here."

"If it doesn't lead here, it's not a Way, birdbrain," she said as she walked away. "And Errare's in a conference with the nutters from the Extraletters sector so if I were you, I'd come back another day."

"It's important," he insisted, "Cyril's disappeared through one of these things and we don't know where he went."

"Next time, tie him to a boomerang!" she said as she turned the corner of the shelf.

"BUT IT'S SERIOUS I TELL YOU!" he shouted. A hissing, rattling sound came from the top of the shelves, and he hastily added, "Sorry," before grabbing Ada's hand and heading in the opposite direction, past a half-opened window set between two stacks of books, showing a city at night.

As crazy as the situation was, she was beginning to understand several basic things. Two of her best friends regularly frequented a place that one could access through strange portals, it was a secret, magical place where a lot of weird people seemed to live their lives - and yet Cyril had chosen to leave through one of Leïla's Accesses, which was something completely different.

Admitting the existence of two separate types of spatial anomalies in less than an hour was a bit much to ask of her.

They passed an arrow pointing to a tunnel built into a wall of books, several books themselves serving as arches. Three small individuals wearing hoods entered the tunnel with absolutely synchronised gestures.

Astro was still walking fast, perhaps looking for "Errare", and she was forced to run to keep up with him because of the length of his legs and the fact that he was still holding her hand. Hold on to me, she thought, Hold on to me, Hold on. Some words of the song suddenly came back to her: The new doorways cannot be opened or passed through by any of us still operating as individual beings of consciousness.

She shuddered and let go of Astro's hand. "I don't get it, but the answer isn't here."

He seemed more intrigued than annoyed: "Ada, all the answers are here."

She was about to answer something but her eyes were drawn to a sign hanging over some sort of archway leading to a plain plywood door, which simply said "Way to the Alchemist Adder - ring twice, tap once".

Perhaps the answer was indeed here.


The plywood door opened to heavy, thick curtains, into which Ada got a little tangled before finding a way out. She stumbled over a pile of boxes and swore as one of them toppled over, scattering about thirty wooden puzzles full of bells all over the floor.
They had already put five of them back in the box when the door to the back room opened and they found themselves face to face with Théo, his eyes wide open. "What are you doing here? I was just about to clo-"

"Did you know there was a giant library back there?" interrupted Ada, her eyes as round as his.

"My contract says that sometimes people will come through these curtains, but I have to treat them like normal customers," he said, fiddling with one of his blue earrings. "And it doesn't work the other way round, anyway."

One more question on her gigantic pile of questions. She'd soon be able to make a whole phone book out of them.

"This… This day is completely ridiculous, okay?" she said as she picked up another puzzle, hoping to keep her hands busy enough to avoid thinking too much about everything that had happened in less than two hours. She felt that if she went over everything too quickly, she would become raving mad. She took a deep breath, struggled not to think about the Flower's relaxation techniques and the black smoke and everything else, and blurted out, "I don't even know where to start. What a nightmare."

Astro continued to put things away without looking at them, and, fortunately for her nerves, decided to take over: "Someone drew the attention of the Jailers to the shenanigans of Leïla and the Flowers with a tag that alluded to the 2005 Ojai incident. They raided the meeting place and we almost got caught too."

"What do you mean you almost got caught too?"

"Well, ‘cause we were there, obviously. We wanted to try and reason with her."

Théo suddenly became very quiet. His index finger pierced the cardboard box he was leaning on. Ada guessed what he was about to say only half a second before he did so. "I'm sorry. I didn't think you'd be there."

There was a brief moment of hesitation. "How DARE you call the Jailers on me? After everything I've done for you?" said Astro, walking menacingly toward Théo, looking ready to commit murder with his bare hands. In other circumstances, a fight between a tall, long-haired, highpitch-voiced man and a nervous, disfigured, clumsy oaf who must have weighed sixty kilos soaking wet could have been comical.

"I DIDN'T KNOW YOU’D BE THERE!" exclaimed Théo, twiddling his fingers as if he were trying to distract them instead of using them to send Astro flying into the piles of boxes. "THIS SHIT HAS ALREADY GONE TOO FAR, AND YOU AND YOUR BUDDIES AND YOUR DELUSIONAL LAISSEZ-FAIRE POLICY, IT'S NOT WORKING, OKAY?"

Ada frantically shook one of the wooden puzzles to make the bell jingle furiously. The tension, if not subsiding, seemed to freeze momentarily.

She took a deep breath. "Let's calm down and recap before I smash something against a wall."


The metal curtain of the shop had finally come down with the appropriate noise after Théo's fifth attempt, and they were now sitting on the stoop of some nearby building.

No one had been talking for a good two minutes.

"We're fucked," Astro finally said, his back turned.

Ada leaned against the wall. She had a feeling of déjà vu. "If I understand correctly, what you call the Jailers is something called the Foundation, and it’s Théo's old job, and he doesn't want to go back there, because they'll-" Théo shuddered and his left hand went straight to his scar. "-Do horrible things to him. And you're part of a gang called the Serpent’s Hand that's been using the Library and tries to protect guys like him, among other things." Astro nodded slowly. "But the gang doesn't want to interfere with Leïla's cult because…?"

He sighed, "Because their influence hasn't been deemed harmful or aggressive so far."

"They're recruiting more and more people."

Astro still had his back to her. "I know."

"All their followers self-mutilate to attain their sort of post-human ideal."

"Unfortunately, that's their choice."

"It's not just their choice," she snapped, "it's manipulation. They're just fragile, desperate people being sold a better life and willing to suffer for it! They could have fooled me years ago back when I was depressed! Fuck, they almost fooled me today!"

"I know." He was shaking a little. Ada suddenly realised that he might be turning his back to her to hide his emotional state. "They've got Cyril," he added in a weak voice.

Théo was playing with the rings in his ears, perhaps to create enough noise to keep anxiety at bay. "They've got Cyril," he confirmed as if to check the reality of that information.

"I'm such a fucking loser," Astro groaned. "I’ve been the worst possible boyfriend. We'd been together for so long that - I don't know, okay? We were serious. Really serious. I thought I didn't deserve it. I got scared. I wanted to run away. And he went straight into a tailspin." His voice was cracking all over the place now. "It's my fault. It's all my fault."

"He and I have a survival pact, and I couldn't stop him from walking through that portal," Ada said. "How do you think I feel?"

"I might have killed him. Just because I'm a fucking coward who-" His voice went too high and he couldn't finish his sentence. She wanted to tell him that he was being dramatic, but Cyril's slightly crazed eyes as he crossed the Access imposed themselves on her mind, and she didn't say a thing.

Silence returned. Evening was beginning to fall, and the streetlights were lighting up. Someone, down the street, passed by on a bicycle. It seemed almost impossible that people around them were still living a normal life.

Théo murmured: "Well, what do we do now?"

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