We didn’t know the Dark Lord would raise an army of the dead. We never thought the young prince could turn traitor. We’re menaced by ghost-wolves, stranded in an outpost on the cold edge of the world, and all signs say that we are, as our first-year Master of Field Operations Planning would say, “utterly fucked.”
And you choose now to go through my pack and ask me about the papers you’ve found? To stand there with your eyes wide and confused and accusing? To ask if I wrote them, and what they mean?
Okay. Remember when I was on assignment to that minor world in the Opal Sector? I found those stories there. I didn’t write them. They’re something called “fanfiction.”
Yes, Jenna, the stories are about us.
I went to that world to research the “bleed-through” phenomenon. How events in one world can leak through to another in the form of dreams, images, thoughts, and myths. How the death of a sun in one universe becomes the foundation for a religion in another. How the same heroes appear in different stories again and again, under different names and faces. Narratives seep across worlds and time, reshaped and remade by artists and dreamers. On a minor world that exists at right angles to our own, the inhabitants have invented astonishing and wonderful forms of narrative—from their first pictures on cave walls to film and streaming video, from epic poems and novels to comics and digital games where players choose their own endings.
And the consumers of such media in turn create their own. They write and share their remixed stories on digital forums. They applaud and leave comments and “kudos.” It’s become quite popular as access to these platforms spreads.
You’re frowning. I’ll get to the point.
Look, of course I know that you’re familiar with bleed-throughs. I don’t mean to be condescending. I’m just … give me a moment. This is awkward, right?
So our own story is being told in that world. Right now. Or something very like it. The whole gang is there—Jin and Ratha and Angel and Tal and you and me. Masters Ahn and Neru. Our Academy days and the return of the Darkness and the fall of the Luminous Pearl. It’s a story called The Secret Guardians of the Ten Thousand Shining Worlds and it’s a comic book series—you know what that is?
Hush, hush. You’ll wake the others. This is why I couldn’t tell you. I couldn’t tell anyone outside the Commission. Yes, it’s the only world, the only instance, where we appear as a bleed-through. No; no one knows what to make of it. The series installments always came out with the storyline lagging cycles behind our real lives. Master Neru thought about sending me to more worlds to try to find a more up-to-date version—maybe even something that would predict our timeline. Ahn freaked out and said no. Pretty much the whole Commission freaked out.
I was freaked out, too.
We wanted to find practical applications for the bleed-through phenomenon, but this hit too close to home. And even so, it maybe still meant nothing—nothing we could control, nothing we could use. There were budget priorities, resource issues. And then the Jade Sector was attacked and, well, you know the rest.
Your arm’s bleeding again. Let me look at it. Don’t give me that scowl. Here, we have a little healing ointment left. No, I’m fine, I swear. I don’t need it.
It’s cold. Let me build up the fire.
Yeah, that story you’re holding? That’s a good one. That’s one of my favorites.
Academy Hijinks/High School Alternate Universe (AU)
The fanwriters like to reimagine our story as set in their own version of the Academy, usually in something called “high school.” They do this with all their favorite stories. There’s so much silly drama in these fics! But it isn’t that different from what really happened, is it?
Okay, it is. We didn’t throw nearly as many parties. I never saw you break curfew or get drunk in the dorms. We’ve never played spin-the-bottle or strip poker—never mind what that is—and Jin never pranked Master Ahn like that—can you even imagine?Although of course he would have wanted to. It’s classic Jin.
In real life we didn’t have much time for hijinks and personal drama; we were all studying and working so hard. It’s funny to think now of how stressed we were. Of how Ratha had stomachaches all second-year and Tal lost weight and even Jin was retching from nerves during the Gateway Exams. We saw each exam and project as a matter of life and death, even when they weren’t.
Although to be fair, a good number were.
We should have slacked off more, though. Blown off a reading or two, thrown parties. Gone all in on Jin’s proposed escapades. Spent an afternoon just sitting in the Academy gardens, soaking in the sun’s warmth and watching the light move on the sea below.
We were all together then. We didn’t understand what that meant. Tal and Angel and Ratha and Jin and you and me. The rest of the 88th-Generation Worlds Guardian class. We were together and whole, for the very last time, and none of us had any idea of what that meant.
I’m sorry, I… It’s just dust in my eyes, that’s all. Some residual death-dust from the last ghost-battle; it’s nothing.
Ha, remember how much you disliked me then? How insanely competitive we were? You really did hate my guts that first year. I don’t blame you; I was an obnoxious prick who thought he knew everything. I was flippant and rude and not even half as funny as Jin. I didn’t know anything at all.
Bakery Shop AU
This is like the high school AU, in that we’re all together and it’s funny and sweet and very low-stakes. In this one, you and I and Ratha and Tal are all working at a bakery when Angel and Jin open a rival shop across the road. Angel bakes the most heavenly of cupcakes: there’s one with strawberry puree and buttercream frosting, and a fantastic lemon one, and a decadent one with caramel chunks and caramel drizzle frosting. Naturally, customers flock to the new shop, and we become obsessed with besting the new bakery while also eating their cupcakes. Masters Ahn and Neru are repeat customers to both shops, and regularly lecture us all. Prince Ko appears, too, but he’s not a traitor, just an earnest young man who loves sweets. No one betrays anyone; no one stabs or kills or imprisons anyone; no one even loses their job. Angel and Jin keep making their cupcakes, and to compete our own shop adds a lunch menu and serves sandwiches with artisanal bread. Tal gets up her courage and finally asks Angel out.
It’s cute. It’s all so cute. The writer even gave me some of the best lines in the story.
It’s so much better than what really happened.
Some of the stories aren’t funny and cute. Some adhere closely to the Secret Guardians series, which in turn reflects our real universe and timeline.
I hate the Secret Guardians.
It does have its badass moments. There was so much I missed out on during my solo assignments, so much I didn’t see or understand of the rest of the team’s work. But in the Secret Guardians, I’ve seen those missing moments in their full-color glory. Like when Tal stole the key to the Cinnabar Gate and made her way to the fallen planet of Azith-i-thar to rescue Angel all on her own. And how she did it, and how those two blasted their way out of the Iron Palace like two angels from hell, fire streaming in their wake like wings, the ancient walls of iron folding and melting behind them. Or that moment when Ratha finally stood up to his father and literally spit in the Lis-Usurper’s face. Or when Jin was caught by Dark agents in Silver Sector Five, and how he bluffed his way out so perfectly, how he even turned the tables and extracted information from them.
And you, Jenna. All the intelligence-gathering missions you’ve led. The worlds you’ve infiltrated, the knowledge you’ve brought back. Your skill in balancing the time-threads, calculating what’s needed to tip a world away from Darkness. There’s no one better. There’s no one better in theory and execution, and the Secret Guardians captured it all.
I wish I’d been with you on some of those missions, if only to watch you in action. I wish I’d been there in the Tigoth Throne Room when you tore off your disguise to reveal your identity and laughed in the Witch Queen’s face. I wish I’d been there when you subtly brokered the peace deal on Lazar-an-nan, which brought that world out from a path leading toward Darkness. I wish I’d fought by your side at Broken Tooth Mountain.
I wish I’d been there for you when your home world was lost.
I hate the story unfolding in the comic books now. When I left the little world that calls itself “Earth,” the series had just reached the point where the entire Ruby Sector was lost, and Ratha was maimed and tortured by his own brother. Jin was hurt, too, but still alive.
The rest of our old group was still alive. And incredibly, I still had hope.
On Earth I tracked down the woman behind the comic. She lives in a place called Toledo, Ohio on a continent known as North America. She does both the writing and illustrations for the series, and there’s nothing remarkable about her at all. She self-published two graphic novels before Secret Guardians. She has graying hair and a soft laugh and crinkle-eyed smile; she lives quietly with her husband and two spoiled cats, and whenever she’s alone her mind fills with images from different worlds.
Our story has bled through to her. We don’t know what it means.
Secret Guardians isn’t well-known but its fan base is loyal and obsessed even if small. I started reading the fanfiction on Master Neru’s suggestion. The original work had no useful content for us; as I said, it lags cycles behind our timeline, it only shows what we already know, and the writer has been getting slower as time goes on. Neru wondered if some of the fanfiction—these strange echoes, the bleed-throughs of a bleed-through—might somehow reflect real alternate timelines. True threads not detected by other means. We wondered whether at least one fic might provide clues, guidance, toward a hopeful future we could steer ourselves toward.
A crazy idea, I know. The whole project was crazy.
Anyway, you’re right: focusing on the more canon-compliant fics does seem a reasonable place to start. But there was nothing there, and they hurt to read.
Did you know that there are fanwriters who set their stories in our universe but make things even worse? The orphanage we saved on Karaph burns down after all, and the children’s souls are harvested for the Dark Lord. Tal is exiled from the Guardians for stealing a gate-key when she rescued Angel. Angel is lost to the Iron Palace. Ratha breaks under torture. Jin never returns from Silver Sector Five. A desperate last message is never delivered, and someone dies without knowing what they meant to another.I will never understand the writers who do this. These stories are just indulgent, angst-ridden fantasies.
And there are stories that don’t alter the basic events, but still revel in angst. They linger on the things that the comic series glosses over, that I myself try to forget.. The nightmares and sleepless nights after the O-shoran Disaster, the faces of all those we couldn’t save. The traumas and wounds that each one of us hold. The despair as we’ve watched world after world fall to the Darkness. The helpless rage of seeing what we once loved destroyed. There are fics that are just thousands and thousands of words that are only there to depict us all sobbing, in grief and in pain.
What the fuck, Jenna. Why do they want to hurt us this way? The canonical Secret Guardians is better; it skims past all this to get to the plot, the action. Moving forward. That’s what our Masters taught us at the Academy: to swallow pain down, get a temporary mind-erasure if needed. To keep going.
The wind and wolf-howls have stopped. It’s so quiet.
There’s only the snow falling outside…
Prince Ko must know where we are by now, don’t you think? Word must have reached him. We should check the defenses again; he’ll be here by morning…
No, I’m fine, I told you. I’m not feverish. Well, I don’t feel feverish.
Honestly, I’ve inhaled death-dust before, and this scratch on my chest is nothing. I’ve been exposed to so much death-dust on this world that I’m probably immune; my titers are sky-high. The doctors can make a study of me when we get back.
What were we talking about again?
Oh, my report. Those papers you found. The fanfics.
There are “crack” fanfics that are wild, Jenna. Cross-over AUs where they put us in worlds where ponies talk and have magical adventures, where robots disguise themselves as ground transport vehicles, where there are unicorns and mafia battles and terrifying cephalopods from space. There were fics I couldn’t understand at all, and ones so disturbing I wished for a mind-erase after. None of these fics were relevant, and I soon learned to filter them out.
So many different fics, Jenna. I made a list, sorted them into categories. Most of them mean nothing at all.
But people are thinking of us. Some of their thoughts are truly depraved. But … they’re thinking of us. A woman wrote down our story, and people read it. They want more.
These are my favorites.
These are the fics where the bad things never happened. Where the story still takes place in our universe, but the universe took a different turn.
Where Ratha’s father wasn’t trash, where he didn’t turn to the Darkness and try to force his son do the same. Where Ratha wasn’t maimed by his own brother, hurt by his own family. Because he grew up in a completely different family, even though they bore the same name. And he came to us at the Academy still sweet-faced and shy, but with a sense of self-worth, an inner steadiness, which he never possessed in real life.
There are fics where none of us have been hurt. Where all of us have known only kindness. Where the time-threads run backward and the very fabric of the universe bends. There’s a fic where Master Ahn builds a time-travel machine (impossible, of course) and a me-from-the-future warns us all of the attack on the Luminous Pearl, and so that beautiful world—the Academy’s home, our sector’s heart—is not lost. Millions never die in the attack, and millions more aren’t lost during the frantic evacuation. All our teachers are alive, and all the students who came behind us. The original Academy still stands where it did for a thousand standard cycles: white and shining on the pearl-dusted cliffs above a dark blue sea.
There are fics where no world ever fell. Where the Darkness never returned; it was truly defeated eons ago, just as we’d thought. And we’re still the guardians of ten thousand shining worlds, and there’s still the lesser darkness of human hearts that can never be uprooted, but the threats we face are manageable. We keep the Gates open; we work to spread light and knowledge; we travel the worlds, and we’re happy.
There’s a fic where I visit your home-world with you. I once promised that I’d do so, and now it’s too late. But nothing is too late in a fix-it fic. In this story, your parents and sisters are alive, and I meet them. I sit at your family table, and we eat the spiced stews and sweet fruits that you’ve boasted of. I pet your striped cat, whom you’ve had since you were a child. We wander through the famous outdoor markets and you laugh as I clumsily bargain in your native tongue. It’s a festival day, and everyone is wearing garlands of white flowers, so I buy garlands for us both. At sunset we take a sky-boat to the Floating City above, and we watch the cloud-towers glow crimson and gold, then fade to lavender and blue with the dusk.
Jenna, if I were the writer of a fix-it fic, we wouldn’t be here now. We wouldn’t be shivering in this outpost at the end of the world. Maybe we’d be on your home-world, or on mine. Somewhere warm, without winter.
If this were a fix-it fic, I would have seen into Prince Ko’s deceptions. I wouldn’t have relied so heavily on reports; I should have known there was a way to circumvent our truth-tests. I would have looked past his pretty face. He reminds me of Jin, you know? That irreverence and humor and charm, with that seeming earnestness beneath. Is that why I was caught off guard?
In a fix-it fic, Jin’s still alive. He didn’t die trying to reach his doomed world. And Ratha never gave in to despair; he’s alive and safe, too. Tal and Angel didn’t die alongside Masters Neru and Ahn and half our other colleagues, defending the Jade Sector.
They’re all alive, everyone we ever loved and countless more as well. The Darkness is not growing. It is not overthrowing human hearts and swallowing star systems whole. And you and I are not in charge of the barely-trained kids sleeping in the back room, because those kids are still in school studying at the original Academy and maybe playing innocent pranks and throwing the occasional underground party.
In a fix-it fic, there aren’t even any such things as ghost-wolves. This planet’s Dark Lord shouldn’t be able to raise an army of the dead; I thought we’d eliminated that trick long ago. What the hell?
In a fix-it fic, I would have done so many things differently. I would fix so much.
One Time it was Canon
I’m rambling. You used to hate it when I rambled like this: you always wanted me to get to the point. You’ve always been one to go straight to the heart…
Why did it take us so long to meet up again, Jenna? How did we let so much time pass?
Maybe I’m a little feverish from the death-dust after all. But I metabolize it quickly; I’ll be okay. Don’t worry.
Don’t worry. Please.
You’re right: I should get some rest now. And so should you.
But there’s something I have to say first. There’s a question I haven’t answered. It’s a question that I know you’ve had since you first found that stack of fics. And I’ve been circling around it and babbling because I’m a coward and a fool. And you’ve let me.
Jenna, let me tell you one last thing about the fan-fics I’ve read.
On Earth, it’s common for fanfiction writers to “ship” characters. That means to write them into romantic relationships, no matter what their relationships are in canon. So, you’ll get wild ships between characters who barely know each other, or who would never in all the potential timelines of any universe ever think of one another like that.
And sometimes you’ll get ships between characters who maybe do think of each other like that.
On Earth’s digital forums, the characters of Secret Guardians have been shipped together in every possible combination, in pairs and in threesomes and more. Jin gets shipped with everyone. So does Ratha. Tal and Angel as a pair are especially popular; they’re a canon couple, after all. They’ve been so since our Academy days.
You and I are a popular ship, too.
I didn’t write the stories you found. But there’s a reason I kept them. There’s a seed of truth in each one.
I love you, Jenna. It’s canon.
It’s canon, and I’m a coward for taking this long to say it. All the cycles that have passed between us—more than twenty standard cycles in all. Enough for several generations of Academy students to graduate. Knowing each other at school, then coming together again for training and missions, the occasional holiday. Parting each time. Losing touch. But I always thought of you, I swear, even when I went a cycle in silence.
I think I haven’t stopped thinking of you since the day we met, long ago. I think I loved you then at first sight: this thin, wild-haired girl with the impatient air and intense gaze. The girl who knew all the answers in class before anyone else, who wasn’t afraid to argue with the most intimidating of Masters. Whose stern look could melt suddenly into a smile that felt like the touch of sunlight itself. Even when you seemed to hate me, I wanted to see that smile. I wanted to hear your laugh.
I’m such a fool for not saying any of this earlier.
No, you don’t have to say anything. Don’t. I just had to tell you, that’s all, because I don’t want to be the version of myself in one of the worst angsty fics I read, who remained a coward to the end and died without saying anything, and let you die, too, without knowing. Because this might really be the end now. Prince Ko will be here in the morning with his ghost army. When they’re done with us, he and his Dark Lord will move on to smash the Gate that’s hidden here. And another world will fall to the Darkness.
Jenna, I don’t know if this is the end of everything. All the universes may fall. There’s a world in a far sector that’s still free, but they’re in danger, too. And they’re telling our story there; they might be telling of this very moment in a cycle or two. I want them to tell the truth when they do. I want to get this part, at least, right.
I love you. I love you. You’ve made my life better. And it’s worth everything—all the wasted time, all the heartache and horror and death-dust and frostbite and all the ghosts and demons of this frozen world and every other world—to be with you again, here. To work with you one last time. To see you and just breathe the same air as you. To feel the touch of your hand.
Oh gods, you’re crying. And I’m crying, too.
Jenna, it was worth living, just to know you.
You don’t have to feel the same, it’s okay if we—
It’s so dark and still. It feels like we’re the only ones left on this world.
But the ghost-wolves are out there. Prince Ko will wait for them to fade away with the dawn. Only then will he move against us.
We still have several hours left. We’ll check the defensive spells again. We’ll harden them as much as we can. We’ll rally the kids in the back room. We’ll do what it takes to survive.
My fever is gone; I told you I metabolize dust quickly. Go ahead and take my bio-readings. I’m as clear-minded as I’ve ever been.
Jenna, I was fine with dying, but I’d rather live. I want to live with you.
Oh gods, your smile. It’s been so long since I’ve seen you smile like this. Do you even know how beautiful you are?
If we get through this I promise: I’ll never leave your side again. I don’t care if it’s the darkest of Dark Lords standing against us, or all the Masters of the new Academy. I mean it. I know that our chances are bad. Almost nil, probably. But in a distant world, someone is telling our story. I don’t know what it means; I don’t know if any of my research on bleed-throughs means a damn thing. But our story isn’t over yet, and they’re waiting for the next installment. Jenna, whatever happens when the sun rises—let’s give them something to write about.
Vanessa Fogg dreams of selkies, dragons, and gritty cyberpunk futures from her home in western Michigan. She spent years as a research scientist in molecular cell biology and now works as a freelance medical writer. Her fiction has appeared in Liminal Stories, Daily Science Fiction, GigaNotoSaurus, The Future Fire, and Neil Clarke’s The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume 4. A complete bibliography and more can be found at her website www.vanessafogg.com. Vanessa is fueled by green tea.