New music: Brian, the Angel of History EP

Normal Heights

This story was a collaboration with TCSNMY7 at The Children’s School in La Jolla, California. We brainstormed the basic elements together—based in part on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Merchant of Venice—then traveled around San Diego visiting story locations. We also enlisted the aid of a distributed team to review drafts and manipulate photos.

For a very thoughtful explanation of the whole process—and, maybe, what it all means—check out Rob Greco’s reflection.

The sky above San Diego is the color of salt and the ocean far below me is dark like lead. I’m standing alone in the air, a thousand feet up, and I might have just made a very bad decision.

Agents of Oberon travel light: two identical uniforms in a black duffel bag, a phone with a good international plan, a thick pad of dollars and euros, and a tiny black box with a silver lock.

Under cover of darkness, with my bag slung over my shoulder, I climb down a short ladder and my soles touch tarmac. The plane is black and white and needle-thin. Its long wings curve like crescent moons, and it’s already taken off again by the time I reach the terminal.

I flash the black-and-white Seal of Oberon at customs; it earns me a lazy nod and a limp wave, and like that I’m through the gates, on American soil, without a single pen-stroke or computer-beep. In however-many hundred years, no bureaucrat or border guard has ever recorded the passage of an agent of Oberon. It’s been a good run.

I take a taxi along the curve of Harbor Drive; San Diego’s skyline glitters against a black sky and a spangling of red lights shows where the battleships sit in the bay. There’s something else in this picture, too, and I have the tools to see it.

But it can wait until morning.

Two trains. Nine taxis. Two rickshaws. Four flights, not counting one grounded by volcanic ash and another routed around a rogue aurora. It was a full-tilt sprint around the planet. Now, finally, I am where I need to be. It’s San Diego, California, the United States: the citadel’s latest port-of-call.

My name is Kovet Moire. I am an agent of Oberon, so now I’ll say the creed:

Risk all I have. May this journey be my last.

The Seal of Oberon, from @nciske.

Directions from Oberon come not via email and not through the post. They’re not printed or written out. They come tied to the leg of an animal—a ferret, an eagle, a salamander—and, you know, it’s not like the animals are trained to bring them to you. So your first task is to catch your destination.

My dad once tracked a snow leopard across the whole width of Tajikistan to snatch the directions around its neck. Tiny beads on a string like a rosary: coded coordinates. A silver bead is one league, a golden bead is ten. Lead means a hundred leagues, and Oberon’s orders are always full of lead.

I was lucky this time—it was just a Trafalgar pigeon. But strung into the directions was the bright-red bead that means URGENT, so I had to hustle. The citadel of Titania wasn’t going to stay put for long.

It’s tempting to think the fairy queen had something to do with the volcano in Iceland, but that line of thinking is dangerous. You start to see the signs of Titania everywhere, in every mistake and every missed opportunity. As far as we can tell, her power, though considerable, extends only to her floating fortress. Everywhere else, she has to rely on her wits. Just like us.

The weak silver light of morning comes and I’ve barely dented the covers. That’s how Oberon trains you sleep: eyes lightly lidded, hands folded across your chest. You look like a dead person.

I feel like a dead person.

A short, scalding shower, a shave, and then, the eye drops. First: the black box, its lock matched to a silver key. Inside, a brown vial with a heavy paper label; it’s the Seal of Oberon again. Inside: a golden syrup. Not the kind of thing you want to put in your eyes. But I do—drop, drop—because it’s the most important part of my job.

I blink hard and pull the curtains back from the balcony windows. Outside: San Diego, and floating serenely above, the citadel of Titania.

Photo-illustration by @faketv.

How many hotel windows have framed that shape? How many times have I seen it floating like that, over Detroit or Dubai, Paris or St. Petersburg?

After all these years, it’s still my destination.

(Here are more photos from Oberon’s archive.)

Titania is the cruelest kidnapper the world has ever known. Her citadel is a prison: a floating gulag packed with men, women, and children. No one has ever escaped. She lures and entices; she tricks and traps. The old tales of witches deep in the forest who enchant children and bake them into bread all find their root in her evil.

Baba Yaga? That’s Titania, too.

The citadel is a megastructure more beautiful than a Frank Gehry and more dangerous than a nuclear submarine. Its fortifications are significant, its movements unpredictable. It can girdle the earth in a hand-clap. It doesn’t reflect radar and it produces no heat. It is not visible from space. Only human eyes, dabbed with Oberon’s golden drops, can see it.

For a long time, we tried to crack the citadel with technology. The high-modern Oberon was all trebuchets and catapults, parachutes and rocket-sleds. Agents died in large numbers. They burned and were crushed. They fell from the sky.

But a few did actually make it aboard. In 1955, a parabolic trajectory was calculated just so, and Roberto Mandrake landed in a heap on the citadel’s faceted roof. He’d been shot from a cannon.

In 1978, an airship drew close and docked.

But even then, when agents of Oberon penetrated the citadel, they were never heard from again. They disappeared inside and were imprisoned just like all the rest. They went in prepared: hands carrying cold black iron, heads carrying solutions to all the fairy riddles. And Titania kept them all.

Well: that’s wishful thinking. That they’re merely imprisoned is the most optimistic scenario. Knowing what we do of Titania, it’s just as likely they were transformed into corks to stop her dark bottles of silver wine.

It’s amazing, if you think about it, that an organization could maintain its esprit de corps over centuries without, you know, a single success to its name. Nothing but failure and death. Plans foiled and ruined.

And yet: Risk all I have. May this journey be my last.

Revenge is the flame that boils our blood. Membership in Oberon is hereditary: father to daughter, mother to son, cross-wise. We are all part of a narrow, knotted family tree, centuries old. And every agent’s friends and siblings and parents eventually fall to the citadel.

Mine did. Enzo and Kate Moire. They were on that airship.

And Portia. Things were just beginning with her. An agent from the other side of the world, beautiful and hard-eyed. I only met her a year ago. Then the citadel parked over Jakarta, and she was dispatched via orders wrapped around a komodo dragon’s tail, and she succeeded. Which is to say, she failed. And now she’s gone.

So yes, it’s basically a feud.

Two girls were taken here in San Diego—twins, just 14—and the police, looking lazy-eyed at the Seal of Oberon, tell me in a slow slur that they were last seen at a market called North Park Produce.

I spend two hours nosing around there, asking questions, peering into dark corners with my eyes full of syrup, almost weeping from the thick golden film. They have it all here: Chinese tea and Moroccan sardines; fresh pink cow’s feet and pale wet blocks of feta. There’s pink-and-green candy from Korea and a whole aisle of olive oils.

It’s all families here, and that always makes me feel strange. Every single other person has come in a unit: mom, dad, and daughter in a tiny Justin Bieber t-shirt who’s begging them to buy banana juice. A whole brood of dark-eyed kids, none older than nine, who all look exactly the same: fine black hair, deep brown eyes. A class of 7th graders from a local school, all in matching t-shirts; I hear them talking about supply chains.

All except me. I’m here alone, because I always show up alone. One of the brood has a fruit-pop, and seen through my eye drops, it has a faint chromatic haze. He’s licking it with gusto. Hazarding sketchiness, I lean down and say: “Hey.”

He looks back up at me warily. “Hi.”

“Where’d you get that?” This is not the first time I’ve been the weird dude dressed in black talking to the four-year-old at the grocery store.

He gives it another huge, zealous lick and announces: “Viva Pops!”

Oberon does learn from its mistakes. The Rube Goldberg schemes came to an end in the early 80s, not too long after the airship was lost with my parents aboard. Now the organization takes a more anthropological approach; the key words are “organic” and “intuitive.” We don’t build catapults; we build relationships.

It is now the objective of every agent to be abducted.

The shop is in Normal Heights, not far from the market, and it has VIVA POPS painted across the window in bright colors: red, orange and fuchsia. Inside there’s a white counter and a chalkboard marked in swoopy strokes with flavors like mango chili, ginger carrot and key lime pie.

My eyes are full of gold and the whole place is shining like a rainbow. This is no ordinary fruit-pop shop.

The woman behind the counter is tall with wide shoulders. Her hair is straw-blond and her face is tanned; everyone’s face is tan here in San Diego. She’s wearing a bright tank-top that droops off one shoulder a bit. I have no idea how old she is.

“Do you have any specials?” I ask, in accordance with Oberon protocol delta-three-Guildernstern.

The woman raises an eyebrow. “Mango chili is pretty special,” she says.

“I mean... special specials.” I try to give her a look that’s very, you know. Significant.

Her eyes narrow. “Well. Yes, there are three others.” She smiles and the skin around her eyes crinkles in a nice way. “But you can only choose one—and once you’ve chosen, that’s it. Understand?”

“I understand,” I say. (This is in the Oberon playbook. Always three choices.)

“Peaseblossom, cobweb, or mustardseed?”

Those sound terrible.

“Now, let me explain. If you choose peaseblossom, you’ll get what you want most in the world. If you choose cobweb, you’ll get what you deserve. If you choose mustardseed—well. Be prepared to risk all you have.“

My choice is clear. If I follow Oberon protocol omega-two-Bassiano, I choose mustardseed.

But. But, but, but.

Now I’m thinking. The sun is beaming in bright through the front window. The warm gaiety of this fruit-pop shop is making me feel strange and too-serious. I’m standing here in a quasi-tactical black jumpsuit with everything I own in the world slung over my shoulder, and my parents are long dead, and my girlfriend Portia is gone, too. Yet I’m still at it with omega-two-Bassiano.

What am I even doing?

“You know,” Portia was saying, “it’s what John Adams called Abigail, in letters.”

We were sitting on a picnic blanket in Bletchley Park six months ago. It was a day-trip from London, where I was living then. I actually owned some silverware and two plates; that’s what it means for me to live somewhere.

“Wait. He called her what?”

“He called her Portia!” The sun was clouded over and a chilly breeze was picking at her hair and lifting the corners of the blanket. “It was her nickname. Maybe more like a code-name, in case the letters were ever intercepted by the British.” She laughed and covered her mouth with her hand. “That’s Oberon talking. Maybe it was just a cute nickname.”

“Well,” I said, smoothing down a corner of the blanket and scootching closer, “what did she call him in letters?”

“They were very clever,” Portia said. “She called him Lysander. So”—she paused, and glanced up at the sky—“Mrs. Adams is Portia, the brilliant maid of Venice.” Pause. “And Mr. Adams is just one of the fools in the forest.” She grinned then. “Sounds about right.”

“I think we need a secret code,” I said. “Just in case of, you know. The British.”

“Yes! We’ll use Morse code, rotated seven letters. Got it?”

“Got it.”

“Tap it out like this.” She drummed a pattern on my knee with her fingertip. “Or blink! You could blink it. Everyone else will just think you’re having a seizure.”

I blinked at her: I-L-O-V-E-Y—

“Yes, definitely a seizure,” she said, words breaking up into laughter. I laughed too, and leaned toward her, blinking like a madman.

I should choose mustardseed right now. Risk all you have. Oberon protocol says: choose mustardseed. Everything I’ve ever learned says: choose mustardseed. My whole life says: choose mustardseed.

But suddenly I like the sound of getting what I deserve, because at this point I think I deserve something pretty good.

“Cobweb,” I say. And cobweb it is: a pale white fish-belly of a fruit-pop.

I lick it and it tastes like—

I am standing on a broad hardwood floor polished so bright it shines like a dark mirror. The planks are long and unbroken, hundreds of feet long; the kind of planks you can’t get anymore. The kind of planks you could never get, really.

It’s a ballroom. Tall marble columns rise pale-pink around the perimeter. Chandeliers dangle down from high above on chains of gold, silver and lead.

I feel cold air across my neck and I turn to look. There’s a door behind me, a really big door, more than twice my height, and it’s open to the sky. Outside, I see white birds wheeling against white clouds and San Diego far below.

This is the citadel.

There are people here—a whole crowd of people in the fancy going-out clothes of many eras. Some are dancing to music that’s low and urgent; it sounds like a mashup of Michael Jackson and Igor Stravinsky. Others mill around long tables full of food and drink—dark bottles of silver wine.

Some of them are wearing familiar suits: the full dress attire of Oberon. Pitch-black, glimmering slightly, with impossible triangles on the shoulders like epaulettes. I have a suit like that.

Then it’s like a photo pulled into focus: this room is full of agents. There are as many agents as non-agents. Agents in black suits and agents in white suits—from the old days, before we switched to black. Some agents in red, from the Schism.

In the crowd I see friends and I see legends of Oberon. Bastizio al’Azar, who piloted a hot-air balloon to the lip of the citadel and swung aboard on a long dangling rope. Mutton-chopped Roberto Mandrake, who they shot out of the cannon. My god, that is really Roberto Mandrake, leaning against a marble column, sipping a goblet of silver wine.

And suddenly my heart is rising and sinking at the same time. I feel sick, because I know who I’ll see next.

Titania, queen of fairies, is here to greet me in person. She’s the woman from the fruit-pop shop. Of course she is.

“Welcome, Kovet Moire,” she says. She looks almost exactly as she did on the surface of the earth. No rainbow glow. No gown made of moonlight. No skull-scepter. I realize that this could be part of the illusion. Oberon protocol alpha-one-Hotspur indicates it is almost certainly part of the illusion.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” Titania says. “Everyone has.” They’ve all paused in their revelry to stand and watch.

“Here is your choice,” Titania says. “You can stay here with me, with your parents, with all of these people. Or you can leave through that door. And if you do, everyone here will die.”

Wait—what? Everyone?

“Everyone. Not you. But everyone else. This is the choice I’ve offered to every agent of Oberon who’s come here. The door or the ballroom. And, as you can see: they all made the same decision.” She smiles; her eyes crinkle in a nice way.

”You may talk to three people before making yours,” she says. “Just three.”

I know exactly who I want to talk to—but I don’t think I can do it yet. So I start with Roberto Mandrake.

“My boy! Your father’s told me all about you,” he bellows. He’s in his fifties and he’s in better shape than I am. His jaw is a hard square and his eyes are a hard blue. He was—he is?—the greatest of all agents: the one who brought Oberon back from the brink.

“Master Agent Mandrake,” I say. “You stayed.”

“I stayed,” he nods. “I came here and found no prison—only this ballroom. I realized my entire career had been built around a lie. And my career—it was far longer than yours, Moire. If I can stay, so can you.”

Next, my dad. He looks just like me—or I guess I look just like him. He’s not much older than me; he and mom disappeared into this place when I was just a kid. Time is frozen here. This is strange. I’m looking in a mirror.

“I knew you’d make it here,” he says. “If we could, so could you. You’re a Moire.” Mom is standing behind him smiling. Her lips are parted; she wants to speak, but knows she can’t.

“You left me behind!” I say, almost yelling. I didn’t realize I was angry until just now, but suddenly I feel it hot in my face. The skin across my cheeks is pulled tight.

Dad flinches and frowns. “Kovet. We didn’t leave you; we waited for you. Now you’re here.”

Portia. This is going to be the worst of it. I want to see her so badly, but now I’m angry. I don’t know what I expect: that they would have consigned all these people to death, just to come back to me?

“Portia,” I say. My voice is shaky. She’s smiling—beaming. She looks great. She says something, but it’s just a buzz in my ears, because at the same time, Portia is blinking.

Blink blink blink. Blink blink blink.

I blink back. I’m blinking fast—too fast—and I don’t think she can understand me. I probably look like I’m having a seizure. It’s pushing the golden syrup out of my eyes; now Portia’s face is streaked with rainbows and I think I can see the sky through the walls.

“It’s time to decide, Kovet Moire,” Titania says.

Before me, the ballroom: all the heroes of Oberon and all the people I’ve lost. My mom and my dad, and my smart, brave girlfriend Portia.

Behind me, the door: a tall rectangle of salt-white sky.

There is not, in fact, a protocol for this. Would I care if there was?

I make my choice.

I leave, but not through the door. There are always three choices, and Titania only gave me two—so I know there’s a way out.

I rub my fists into my eyes, hard. The golden syrup melts away. I blink and blink and blink again, and the ballroom fades away in a wash of bright color. Silhouettes turn dark then light; columns bend and disappear.

I’m alone now, standing in mid-air, supported by some unseen surface. It feels like sand beneath my feet. I was half-afraid I’d fall, but there is an echo of Titania’s power in this space. Whew.

Above and around me, it’s all white sky, and up ahead, a menagerie of aircraft. It’s the parking lot for all the agents who came and never left. Bastizio al’Azar’s hot-air balloon, punctured and deflated. A tattered biplane. And an airship: the one that brought my parents to this place.

Fairies are great at riddles but terrible at codes. Portia was chattering brightly, but her eyes said: T-R-A-P-P-E-D.

I take two steps forward and the invisible floor holds me. I’m going back down to earth, and I’m going to find a way to crack this citadel. But I won’t do it as an agent of Oberon. How could this organization operate for hundreds of years without understanding what it actually faced? (And why did we waste all that time chasing animals?)

No. My friends and family are trapped and enchanted. So no more assumptions, no more protocols. I’m Kovet Moire. I make my own directions.

P.S. You saw the photos of the citadel, right?

Spring 2010, La Jolla

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