This story was first serialised in 30 daily parts during September 2020 via the @MoveablePress and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds [9am and 5pm GMT respectively.] It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

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Answers to Nothing

The advert stands out with minimal effort, lodged between Mrs Parsons’ offer of cheap piano lessons and that window cleaning flyer, placed the day after I’d moved into 13B. It is written on the back of an ancient picture postcard, penmanship at once both brilliant and impressive.

‘Wanted: Person of Good Standing to assist with daily issues appertaining to the numerical complexity of Existence. Must be immaculately presented, punctual, with the most open of minds. Payment will be negotiated on completion of the correct procedural particulars. Bring Card.’

There’s no phone number to contact, obvious lack of address on the written side: assuming the newsagent will hold them is met with first a shrug and then not unexpected indifference. She lets me take the card regardless: without those elements the ad appears effectively useless. Except I’m a local now, can recognise the black and white photograph on the picture’s side. Gauss and Euler, an exemplary art emporium older than me, my home, the newsagents and most of this street combined. A Grade One listed building standing proudly in many forms since the 1300s.

On the other side of town it has become a shrine to the beauty of both form and dysfunction. The University’s art course enthusiastically taught me a whole module on its significance to the city, stretching from the arrival of its original owner to the unassuming village in 1326. Nearly 700 years later, that place is at least 70% national treasure, 20% utter chaos with the rest… well, depending on who you believe, it’s either magical, possessed by evil spirits or a portal to another dimension. The urban legends that have sprung from the shop…? God tier.

I love it for its vegan menu, fact it always has in stock whatever it is in art supplies required without ever having to order, and that it smells of burnt sugar. Without fail, every time I go there I’m back as a kid in Aunt Betty’s kitchen when she’d make special almond brittle. Today I’ve made a special effort. In these trousers, this waistcoat we could be going out in Manchester. The boots glisten, red patent leather doing exactly what was planned, same colour as lips and earrings. My mind is not just open, it’s ready for business, waiting for offers.

Gauss and Euler sits hidden down a side street in the Town Centre, cobbled line between our modern, aesthetically pleasing Shopping Centre and a chain-run coffee shop. It is literally a gateway to another world… except, not today: passageway is unexpectedly, inexplicably shut.

I watch two disgruntled Art College students encounter a door that absolutely never existed here the last time a trip was made for replacement acrylics and charcoal sticks, before deciding to go drink latte and eat muffins instead. Considering my next move, I notice the picture. There’s another postcard, stuck to the door at eye height. The assumption was it explained the closure but instead there is an instruction written in ink so vivid blue the letters shimmer in early morning sunshine.

PLACE CARD HERE.

I look around, suddenly very self-conscious.

Maybe the rumours were actually true. Perhaps there needs to be more than just an open mind at play here. Then there’s a moment of panic: which way to place the card? Maybe this isn’t just an instruction. What if it were a key for a door which might not exist now… don’t be daft. Except, on the postcard, there’s a door like this, with a white square just like that one over there as these tiny people in black and white are no longer just ink and paper but are moving, living beings and then it registers. I just had to think about putting the card in place.

Welcome to August 12th, 1890, when Frobisher and Ashwood, taking this picture, captured the living, breathing heart to my town. They’re behind me now, setting up their equipment, in a space where past and present overlap so seamlessly it is impossible to separate myself from it. I’m not supposed to either: this is a test, first of many. The numerical complexity of existence defines this spot as a focus, billions of possible past and future outcomes radiating from a single, intractably defined point of origin. These photographers captured it accidentally.

That’s why their card is so important, explains as I finally look up why there is no obstruction to the alleyway, but a woman standing there, dressed in a red coat and black trousers that beautifully mirror my own choices. Then, as I blink, she is in front of me, smiling broadly.

“We knew how quickly you’d pick this up. After a while, it’s easy to spot those who Understand and those who will never See. This job is yours if you want it.”

I think about asking what it is that has been offered, but an answer is already in my head, presented by a future self. Standing here, my World is expanding and contracting; wind offering smells that haven’t existed for centuries. Heady richness, past summers when all that stood here was a small stone circle. Ley lines from seven counties converge to a point where one woman first pitched her tent.

No, not her, this isn’t immortality on show but lineage. An ancestor, flame haired, first touched with the taint of Understanding: my Future Self offers a tantalising hint of our possibility, hands intertwined. I can still walk away and all this will vanish, become simple desire. I can’t, won’t, refuse to reject what’s right, correct, flowing through every cell of a body that’s been waiting for this moment for multiple generations. Here is where I need to be. THIS is what I was built to become a part of. After thirty-six years lost an existence is found.

With the next exhale I am back, staring at an alleyway no longer blocked, two art students arguing furiously that there was absolutely a gate here before they went for take-out. My future lover is nowhere to be seen, absolute normality a sudden and reassuring constant. What now?

The shop answers my question, which should not be as much of a surprise as it is but there’s still a moment of disbelief as something touches my consciousness. Burnt sugar. A kitchen, filled with warmth and noise. Aunt Betty’s there, standing in front of me, as I remember her. She passed almost a decade ago: the woman in front of me is at the prime of her life, and quite obviously presented not to frighten a mind that might not already have grasped that this is the way Understanding communicates with the humans that move within it, conducting business.

‘Well, luv, you’ve already grasped the basics that most people take months to properly comprehend, so I should be asking that question of you. Knowing you possess an ability to subconsciously improve the lives of others, but not directly influence events, where would you start?’

The temptation instantly is to head for London, maybe Manchester but brain is already working the problem logically. Dismantling any system at the top level won’t work, or else Understanding would have already done so… unless there’s more at play here than just a force for good…

Betty’s features alter, appraisal now far more critical.

‘That revelation takes even longer to register for most: if Understanding exists, there’s a counter. The Universe is very big on balance, has been since forever. It means that if we’ve found you, Chaos has a new convert.’

Blimey: there are actual, real Agents of Chaos… it’s not just a figure of speech. All this stuff is being engineered, by a presence that can only exist to counter the good. My brain is already drawing conclusions, working out where to go as opposition… but that’s not my task.

It’s my job to destroy all of this for good.

‘Understanding is happy to leave you. Chaos, however, has other ideas…’

She works for the Bad Guys. That woman, destined to become the love of my life, is the latest addition to Chaos Incarnate, and she is inside the shop, waiting. Everything inside consciousness rearranges with a speed that is enough to bring me to my knees. The shop is Chaos, not Understanding. All that time, the Good Guys have been protecting me from them, hiding my ability, keeping me safe until they knew my oppositional twin was ready.

She has already switched sides, coming from the Goodness that once owned this place before Darkness possessed it, warping true power. The final showdown between two massive Universal constants has nothing to do with major players or corrupt government.

It will come down to us.