A sample from NECESSARY EVIL by Ian Tregillis
Superhumans and dark magic collide in secret supernatural history of twentieth-century events – read the prologue of Necessary Evil, the final book in the landmark Milkweed Triptych.
She is five years old when the poor farmer sells her to the mad doctor.
It is autumn, damp and cold. Hunger twists her stomach into a knot. She kneels in a smear of oak leaves, holding a terrier by the hind legs while her brother tries to wrestle the soup bone from its mouth. The bone is a treasure, glistening with flecks of precious marrow. The dog growls and whimpers; they do not hear the wagon approach.
The farmer asks if they are hungry. He says he knows somebody who can feed them, if they’re willing to take a ride in his cart.
They are. The dog keeps the bone.
She huddles in the hay of the farmer’s wagon. Brother holds her, tries to fend off the seeping cold. Another boy rides with them. His chest gurgles when he coughs.
They arrive at a farm. The field behind the house is studded with little mounds of black earth. Here and there, ravens pick at the mounds. They pull at tattered cloth, tug on scraps of skin.
A doctor inspects the children. She realizes he will feed them if he likes what he sees. But he hates weakness.
She watches the coughing boy. Illness has made him weak. And she is so very hungry.
She trips him. The doctor sees his weakness and it disgusts him. Soon there is another mound behind the farm house. And there is more food for her.
She considers doing the same to the boy called brother. Perhaps she could know the comfort of a full belly. But brother wants to help her. And she might want other things after the hunger has passed.
It is winter, long and dark.
The doctor is a sick man, driven to madness by the weight of his genius. And he is looking for something. He purchases children in order to remake them. He hurts them, cuts them, in his desperate search for something greater.
The days are full of scalpels, needles, shackles, drills, wires. The stench of hot bone dust, the metallic tang of blood, the sting of ozone. The nights are full of whimpering, crying, moaning. Torments pile up like snowflakes. So do the bodies behind the farmhouse.
Brother tries to protect her. He is punished.
But she survives. Sometimes the pain is pleasant; when it isn’t, she retreats to the dark place in her mind.
Brother survives, too. She is glad. He is useful.
The doctor operates on her, over and over again. But no matter how many times he opens her skull, no matter how often he studies her brain to awaken a dormant potential that only he believes is real, he never notices that she is different. He does not see that she is like him.
In the meantime, she discovers the joy of poetry. The pleasure of arranging dried wildflowers. She collects sunrises and sunsets.
She grows. So does brother. Taller. Stronger. Wiser. And they are joined by others—a rare few who endure years of the doctor’s scrutiny. She and brother differ from the others. Their skin is darker, like tea-stained cotton, and their eyes like shadows, while the others have light skin and colorful eyes. But she and brother survive, and so the doctor keeps them.
One day, deep in that long winter, the doctor sees his first success. His tinkering unleashes that elusive thing he calls the Will to Power. But it consumes the boy upon whom he is working. The screams shatter windows and crumble bricks in those few moments between transcendence and death.
The doctor, vindicated by this fleeting triumph, redoubles his efforts. He drills wires through their skulls, embeds electrodes in their minds. Electricity, he decides, is key to unleashing the Will to Power. When it does not work he opens their skulls and tries again. And again. The doctor is a patient man.
Sometimes the pain is so great that the oubliette in her mind is scarcely deep enough to keep her safe. Some of the others break; they become imbeciles, or mutes. Those who do not break are warped. The doctor is their father; they strive to please him. They think they can. But she knows better. They don’t understand the doctor as she does.
The doctor connects their altered minds to batteries. And, one by one, the survivors become more than human. They fly. They burn. They move things with their minds.
Yet she is a puzzle the doctor cannot crack. He takes her into the laboratory again and again. But nothing works. She is unchanged by the surgeries. Until one morning.
When she wakes, her mind is ablaze.
She is wracked by apparitions. Assaulted with visions of unknown places and people. Brilliant, luminous, the images streak through her mind like falling stars flaring across the heavenly vault of her consciousness. The heat of their passage rakes her body with fever.
The light show etches patterns inside her eyelids. A shifting, rippling cobweb of fire and shadow enfolds her mind. It hurts. She flails. Tries to tear free of the web. But she cannot separate herself from the luminous tapestry any more than the sea can divest itself of wet. It is a part of her.
She fumbles for something constant. Through sheer willpower she forces her mind to focus, to pluck a single image from the chaos before the cascade drives her mad.
The web shimmers, ripples, reconfigures itself. A new sequence of visions assaults her senses. She sees them, feels them, smells and tastes and hears them.
The earth, swallowing brother.
The doctor, wearing a military uniform.
Oblivion, vast and cold and deeper than the dark place in her own mind.
She passes out.
When next she wakes, she is sprawled on the stone floor of her cell. Brother kneels over her. He cradles the back of her head, strong fingers running through the stubble of her shaven skull. His fingertips come back glistening red. His eyes widen. Brother tells her not to move, takes the pillow from her cot, slides it beneath her head.
Trembling and cold, she watches it all through the shimmering curtain, past pulsing strands of silver, gold, and shadow. The images wash over her again.
Brother standing . . . rushing into the corridor . . . bowling over one of the others in his haste to summon the doctor . . . angry words . . . the corridor erupting in flames . . . she is trapped her skin bubbling blackening shriveling in the inferno heat twisting her body ripping the breath from her lungs before she can scream the agony oh god the agony she is burningtodeathohgodOHGOD—
Brother runs for the door.
She is going to dieohgodtheagonyohgod—
She cries out. He pauses in the doorway.
The shimmering cobwebs flicker, blink, reconfigure themselves again.
The future changes. There is no fire.
It is springtime, bright and colorful.
Her Will to Power has manifested, and it is glorious.
The cascade of experiences still assaults her like a rushing cataract, still threatens to sweep her away to permanent madness. A lesser person would embrace insanity for succor and refuge. But not her. She understands now.
The scenes she experiences are snippets of her own future. One of her possible futures. One of an infinity.
The Götterelektron flows up her wires, enters her mind, hits the loom of her Willenskräfte and explodes into a trillion gossamer threads of possibility. A tapestry of potential time lines fans out before her. Countless golden strands, each future path branching into uncountable variations, and innumerable variations on those variations, on and on and on and on. Each choice she makes nudges the world from one set of paths to another.
She is a prophet, an oracle, a seer. She is nothing less than a vessel of Fate.
The web of possible futures is infinitely wide and grows wider the further she looks. It takes strength of mind and will to plumb the depths, to explore the far fringes of possibility. There is a horizon that limits her omniscience, a boundary built from her own weakness.
In the first fragile hours of her new ability, she can’t peer ahead any further than a few moments. Brother runs for the doctor, she dies in fire; he stays, she lives.
With practice, she pushes the horizon back several hours. Tell brother she is hungry: he comes back with stew, bread, and cherry strudel. Wait an hour, then tell him: there is no strudel left. Wait two hours, then tell him she is ravenous: the doctor catches him breaking curfew, punishes him with a night and a day in the coffin box; brother rips off his fingernails trying to claw out.
With several days’ practice, she can follow the time lines almost a week into the future. Steal a knife from the kitchen, stab brother in the neck: whole branches of the infinite web disappear and are replaced with others that begin with a shallow grave and a sack of quicklime.
The process is beautiful. Mesmerizing. She watches it again and again.
She learns to focus her will like a scalpel, learns to prune the decision tree, learns to slice away the gossamer tangle of unwanted possibilities.
The further she pushes the horizon, the more powerful she becomes. Yet there are still things she cannot do, events she cannot bring to fruition. She cannot make it snow in June. She cannot make brother fall in love in the next two days. Nothing she does will cause the doctor to tumble down the farm house stairs and break his neck in the next six hours. But push the horizon back, and possibilities open up. Why hurry? In three days’ time the skies will open with a torrential downpour. The doctor will wear galoshes. He will leave them outside his door on the third floor of the farmhouse lest he track mud inside. He oversees the daily training exercises from his parlor window. She distracts one of the others with a well-timed wink; he loses his concentration and destroys delicate equipment in an explosion of Willenskräfte. The doctor flies into a rage. Throws the door open. Does not see the galoshes. Lands at the bottom of the stairs with splinters of vertebrae poking through his lifeless neck.
She can kill the doctor with a single wink. One pebble starts a landslide; a single snowflake begets an avalanche.
But she is comfortable here. The doctor’s death would change the farm, compromise her comforts. The doctor lives a bit longer: she has decided his fate.
She has cast off the winter cocoon of her childhood, to stretch her wings in the sun.
She is a butterfly, leaving hurricanes in her wake.
It is summertime, hot and green and glorious.
Her ability is extensive, flexible. Full of subtleties. She can make anybody do practically anything, if only she’s willing to search the web of future time lines long and hard enough. Willing to practice countless variations on a brief conversation, or a momentary interaction. Infinity always includes a time line that spools out according to her whims.
The doctor fails to comprehend the extent of his creation. She revels in paradox.
She pushes the horizon back years. And when her power grows sufficiently grand, she does what any self-respecting demigoddess would do: she divines her own fate. Fates.
Alas. She is not a true goddess; she won’t live forever. But surely, with the proper choices at the appropriate junctures, she will live a very long time. She plunges ahead, looking for the day her body finally succumbs to age. Is she ninety years old? A full century?
Along the way, she sees other things looming. All time lines show the world soon engulfed in war. It doesn’t worry her. Finding a comfortable path through the war time years is trivial.
She explores the most promising potentialities first. She plumbs the future, and looks deeper still, until the branching and rebranching of parallel time lines has woven the threads of possibility into the finest fur . . .
. . . and discovers something watching her.
Something that lurks in the gaps between the time lines.
An interstitial horror, prowling the places where nothing should exist. Titanic. Malevolent.
It notices her. And it is angry.
Winter again. Nothing but ice and shadow.
Nightmares torment her for weeks. It takes longer than that before she recovers the courage to explore the deep future again. And when she does, she encounters that same wall of suffocating malice, that same sense of something vast and ancient watching her from outside the time lines.
Every exploration of the future—discarding, as always, the branches that end prematurely when she is shot, strangled, struck by lightning—ends with her tumbling into that abyss. Ends with a darkness so complete that even her fearless heart quails before it.
Again and again and again and again she tries. But there is no avoiding this destiny. She learns what she can.
The demons are called Eidolons. They are everywhere, everywhen. They are the mortar between the bricks of the universe. They are beings of sheer volition, and they despise humanity. Despise the stain, the corruption, humanity leaves upon the otherwise perfect cosmos. For humans are nothing but a pointless accident of space and time—minuscule, meaningless—forever shackled by their spatial and temporal limitations, yet somehow sentient and possessing a limited form of free will. Nothing could be more offensive to the Eidolons. And thus they seek to eradicate the insult.
But the Eidolons’ vastness is their weakness; humanity’s salvation is its insignificance on the boundless scale of the cosmos. All of human existence rests on a problem of demarcation. This is a precarious balance, stable only as long as the Eidolons never truly perceive humanity.
But they will. For there are warlocks in the world. Men who commune with the Eidolons. Men willing to improve the Eidolons’ perception of humanity in exchange for fantastical, impossible feats. For the demons are not bound by the laws of nature.
The horrors the warlocks will unleash are a consequence of the looming war. Even she cannot avert it. It is far too large, and coming far too soon. The world committed itself to this path before she was handed the reins.
In many time lines, the end comes during the war itself. There are other future paths, more complicated and less likely scenarios, where the Eidolons consume the world years after the war has ended. Perhaps even decades. But even at the fringes of possibility, on the most convoluted and unlikely time lines she can discern, everything ends in darkness. Everything ends with the Eidolons. She ends with the Eidolons.
In every single time line.
The seasons turn. She struggles to find meaning in the face of her own doom. Slides into nihilism. Brother doesn’t understand. He can’t. Her concerns extend far beyond mortal comprehension.
What point is there of being a demigoddess if she can’t change the things that matter? Can’t alter her own fate?
She whiles away the months with desultory explorations of the future. Like brother, many of the same people reappear in her investigations, their fates braided with hers across a multiplicity of futures. But one man piques her interest. In some time lines, their interaction lasts for no more than a few moments. But that is immaterial: she sees him again and again and again.
His name is Raybould Marsh. He is strong. Courageous. Beautiful. Burdened with anger. Not as clever as she, but that is no sin.
Clearly, they are meant to be together. Why else would this magnificent stranger appear in so many of her futures?
She experiences something new: it begins as a lump in her throat, turns into a wonderful ache in her chest, becomes butterflies in her belly, and spreads down her spine to create a warmth between her legs.
She plays at seduction. Explores the futures in which she snares his heart. He is a prickly man, and difficult at times. But love is just another emotion, and she can make anybody do virtually anything—feel almost anything—given enough time and patience. And there are time lines where he succumbs to her charms. Difficult to access, and rare, but they do exist.
On lonely nights she pleasures herself while watching him sleep. It is one such night, spent imagining his calloused hands on her naked body, when she discovers that Raybould Marsh can be something more than her lover.
He can be her savior. He can save her from the Eidolons.
What would Raybould do in the face of inescapable doom? Every time line ends with the Eidolons. But he would see it differently: every preexisting time line ends thus.
So why not build a new time line? From scratch?
She sits bolt upright, the first tremors of orgasm forgotten.
Springtime again. The butterfly stretches her wings.
Outwitting the Eidolons is a superb challenge. The only challenge worthy of her attentions. It becomes her sole focus for years on end: mastering manipulations; piercing the dark heart of the knottiest paradoxes; culling insights from obscure potential futures; skirting her own death at the hands of enraged allies and determined enemies; weaving cause and effect across decades.
She inspects every detail, for she must leave nothing to chance. The plan must unfold over so many years that the tiniest crosscurrents will grow into cyclones capable of unraveling the slender thread of her machinations.
It is a Herculean undertaking. But she succeeds.
It will start with a man named Krasnopolsky.