Only the extraordinary are chosen.
Only the cunning survive.
An explosive return to the library leaves the six Alexandrians vulnerable to the lethal terms of their recruitment.
Old alliances quickly fracture as the initiates take opposing strategies as to how to deal with the deadly bargain they have so far failed to uphold. Those who remain with the archives wrestle with the ethics of their astronomical abilities, while elsewhere, an unlikely pair from the Society cohort partner to influence politics on a global stage.
And still the outside world mobilizes to destroy them, while the Caretaker himself, Atlas Blakely, may yet succeed with a plan foreseen to have world-ending stakes. It’s a race to survive as the six Society recruits are faced with the question of what they’re willing to betray for limitless power—and who will be destroyed along the way.
Please enjoy this free excerpt of The Atlas Complex by Olivie Blake, on sale 1/9/24
Atlas Blakely was born as the earth was dying. This is a fact.
So is this: the first thing Atlas Blakely truly understood was pain.
This, too: Atlas Blakely is a man who created weapons. A man who kept secrets.
And this: Atlas Blakely is a man willing to jeopardize the lives of everyone in his care, and to betray all those foolish or desperate enough to have the misfortune to trust him.
Atlas Blakely is a compendium of scars and flaws, a liar by trade and by birth. He is a man with the makings of a villain.
But above all else, Atlas Blakely is just a man.
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His story began where yours did. A little differently—no smarmy toff dolled up in tweed, no insufferable well-pressed suit—though it did begin with an invitation. This is the Alexandrian Society, after all, and everyone must be invited. Even Atlas.
The invitation addressed to Atlas Blakely had developed a thin adhesive film from whatever misfortunate substance had been its neighbor, the invitation itself having been unceremoniously mislaid beside the bin in his mother’s dilapidated flat. The monument to the misdeeds of an average Thursday (i.e., the bin and its rubbish contained within) lived inauspiciously above a square meter of scorched lino paneling and below a staggering tower of Nietzsche and de Beauvoir and Descartes. As usual, the refuse had mushroomed perilously from the constraints of the bin, old newspapers and takeaway containers and moldy, discarded turnip heads communing with untouched piles of literary journals, unfinished poetry, and a porcelain jar of paper napkins folded painstakingly into swans, so that beside it, a sticky square of posh ivory cardstock was almost entirely unnoticeable.
Almost, of course. But not quite.
Atlas Blakely, then twenty-three, plucked up the card from the floor between harrowing shifts at the local pub, a job for which he’d had to grovel despite his possession of a degree, two degrees, the potential for a third. He glanced at his name in elaborate calligraphic script and determined it had probably been carried there on the wings of a bottle. His mother would be asleep for several hours yet, so he pocketed it and stood, glancing up at the image of his father, or whatever the word was for the man whose portrait still sat upon the bookcase, gathering dust. About this or the other thing, he did not intend to ask.
Initially, the way that Atlas felt upon receipt of his Alexandrian summons could be put most plainly as repulsion. He was no stranger to medeians or academicians, being one of those himself and the progeny of the other, and knew by then to distrust both. He meant to throw it out, the card, only the adhesive of gin and what was probably the tamarind chutney his mother ordered by phone from the nearby Asian grocery (“It smells like Pa,” his mother often said when she was lucid) soon glued it to the lining of Atlas’s pocket.
His Alexandrian Caretaker, William Astor Huntington, was what Atlas would call overly fond of puzzles, to the severe detriment of things like sanity and time. It was later that evening, fiddling blindly with the card in his pocket—having just tossed out a man for the customary offense of having more whisky than sense—that Atlas determined the spellwork laced within its contents to be a cipher, which was likewise something he wouldn’t have had the time or sanity for if not for being brutally wounded by love (or whatever it was that had mainly affected his penis) some twenty-four hours prior. In Atlas Blakely’s later opinion, Huntington’s scavenging methodology was a narcissistic faff. When it came to the Society, most people needed only five minutes to be convinced.
But that was later Atlas’s opinion. At the time, Atlas was heartsick and overqualified. In the larger scheme of things, he was bored. He would come to understand over time that most people were bored, especially those in consideration for a place in the Society. It was a small, gentle cruelty of life that most people with a true sense of purpose lack the talent to achieve it. The people with talent are far more likely directionless, an odd but unavoidable irony. (In Atlas Blakely’s experience, the best method for ruining someone’s life is to give them exactly what they want and then politely get out of their way.)
The cipher led him to the toilet of a sixteenth-century chapel, which led him to the roof of a recently completed skyscraper, which led him to a field of sheep. Eventually he arrived at the Alexandrian Society’s municipal quarters, an older version of the room in which he would later meet six of his own recruits—a forthcoming renovation which Atlas would not know until later was funded by someone who was not even in the Society, had never been initiated, had probably never killed someone, ever, which was very nice for the donor in question. Presumably they slept very well at night. But that is obviously not the point.
So what is the point? The point is a man, a genius named Dr. Blakely, had an affair with one of his first-year undergraduates in the late 1970s that resulted in a child. The point is there are inadequate resources for mental health. The point is schizophrenia is latent until it isn’t, until it ripens and blooms, until you look down at the infant who ruined your life and understand both that you would willingly die for him and, also, that you will probably die for him whether the decision is left in your hands or not. The point is nobody will call it abuse because it is, by all accounts, consensual. The point is there is nothing to be done except to wonder if things might have been different had she not worn that skirt or looked at her professor that way. The point is a man’s career is at stake, his livelihood, his family! The point is Atlas Blakely will be three years old when he first hears the voices in his own mother’s head—the duality of her being, the way her genius splinters off somewhere, dovetailing into something darker than either of them understand. The point is the condom broke, or maybe there was no condom.
The point is there are no villains in this story, or maybe there are no heroes.
The point is: someone offers Atlas Blakely power and Atlas Blakely says, unequivocally, yes.
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He finds out later that another member of his recruitment cohort, Ezra Fowler, found his own cipher stuck to the bottom of his shoe. No fucking clue how it got there. Nearly threw it away, really didn’t give a fuck, only didn’t have any other plans, so, here we are.
Ivy Breton, NYUMA graduate who did a year at Madrid, finds hers inside an antique dollhouse, perched upon the replica of a Queen Anne chair that her great-aunt, a hobbyist, had varnished by hand.
Folade Ilori, Nigerian born, educated at Universitá Medeia, finds hers on the wing of a hummingbird in the vineyards of her uncle’s estate.
Alexis Lai, from Hong Kong, educated at the National University of Magic in Singapore, finds hers tucked neatly into the excavated bones of what her team believed to be a Neolithic skeleton in Portugal. (It wasn’t, but that was another darkness, for another time.)
Neel Mishra, the other Brit, who is actually Indian, finds his cipher in his telescope—literally written in the stars.
And then there’s Atlas with the bins and Ezra with his shoe. They were destined to lock eyes, recognize the immensity of this revelation, and follow it up with some weed.
After Alexis dies and Atlas thinks a somberer version of well, fuck, better get on with it, he learns exactly how they were each selected. (This happens after Atlas discovers the existence of Dalton Ellery but before his Caretaker, Huntington, has the “spontaneous” decision to retire.) Apparently, the Society can track the magical output of any person in the world. That’s it. That’s their main consideration and it’s . . . underwhelming. Almost frustratingly simple. They look for whoever is doing a fuckton of magic and determine whether that magic comes with a price that someone else has already paid, and if not they say oi!, that looks promising. It’s a little more refined than that, but that’s the gist of it.
(This is not the long version of the story, because you’re not interested in the long version. You already know what Atlas is, or have some idea of what’s going on with him. You know this story doesn’t end well. It’s written on the wall—which, to be fair, means Atlas can see it, too. He’s not an idiot. He’s just pretty much fucked any way you look at it.)
The point is Ezra Fowler is really, really magical. So is anyone who steps through that door, but by the standards of pure output, Ezra tops the list.
“I can open wormholes,” Ezra explains one night over indecency and small talk. (It takes him much longer to discuss the event that awoke his particular magical specialty, i.e., his mother’s murder in what would later be called a hate crime, as if treating a virus as a coalition of separate, unrelated symptoms could possibly derive a cure.) “Little ones, but still.”
“How little?” asks Atlas.
“Oh, I thought this was a shrinking down situation,” Atlas exhales. “You know. Some Alice in Wonderland shit or something.”
“No,” Ezra says, “they’re pretty normal sized. Like, if wormholes were normal.”
“How do you know they’re wormholes?”
“I don’t know what else they’d be.”
“Cool, cool.” Drugs made this conversation easier. Then again, drugs made all of Atlas’s conversations easier. It’s actually kind of impossible to explain this to anyone, but hearing people’s inner thoughts makes relationships approximately one million times harder. Atlas is an overthinker. He was a careful child, careful to conceal his origins, his bruises, his flat, his malnourishment, his expert forgery of his mother’s signature, careful, so careful, quiet and unobtrusive, but is he too quiet?, should we be worried?, should we speak to his parents?, no no, he’s a pleasure to have in class, he’s so helpful, perhaps he was just shy, is he too charming?, is it even natural to be this charming at five years old, six, seveneightnine?, he’s just so well-behaved for his age, so mature, so worldly, doesn’t ever act out, do we wonder . . . ?, should we see if? Ah, spoke too soon, there we go, a rebellious streak right on cue, a flaw, thank goodness.
Thank goodness. He’s a normal child after all.
“What?” says Atlas, realizing that Ezra is still speaking.
“I’ve never told anyone that before. About the doors.” He’s staring at the bookcase in the painted room, at the layout that Future Atlas does not rearrange.
“Doors?” Atlas echoes meaninglessly.
“I call them doors,” Ezra says.
In general, Atlas knows doors. Knows not to open them. Some doors are closed for a reason. “Where do your doors go?”
“Past. Future.” Ezra picks at a flake of dry skin on his cuticle. “Wherever.”
“Can you take anyone with you?” Atlas says, thinking: I just want to see. I just want to see what happens. (Does he ever get his comeuppance? Does she ever get well?) I just want to know. But he knows he wants it too much to ask it out loud, because Ezra’s brain throws up a red flag that only Atlas is privy to. “I’m just curious,” he clarifies through a smoke ring. “I’ve never heard of anyone who can make their own fucking wormholes.”
“You can read minds,” comments Ezra after a moment, which is both an observation and a warning.
Atlas doesn’t bother confirming this, since it’s not technically true. Reading is very elementary and minds are illegible as a rule. He does something else with minds, something more complex than people understand, more invasive than people can empathize with. As a matter of self-preservation, Atlas leaves out the details. Still, there’s a reason that if he wants someone to like him, they generally do, because meeting Atlas Blakely is a little like debugging your own personal code. Or it can be if you let it.
(One day, years later, after Neel has died several times but Folade only twice, when they’re deciding whether or not to leave Ivy in her grave—if, perhaps, that might temporarily leave the archives satisfied?—Alexis will tell Atlas that she likes it, the mind reading. She not only doesn’t mind it, she actively thinks it’s ideal. They can go days without speaking to each other, which is perfect. She doesn’t like to talk. In her words, children who see dead people don’t like to talk. It’s a thing, she assures him. Atlas asks if they have a support group, you know, for the children who see dead people who are now really, really quiet adults, and she laughs and flicks some bubbles at him from the bath. Stop talking, she says, and holds out a hand for him. He says okay and gets in.)
“What’s it like?” Ezra says.
Atlas blows another perfect smoke ring and smiles the stupid smile of the truly overindulged. Somewhere else, for the first time in his life, his mother is doing something he has no idea about. He hasn’t checked in. Doesn’t plan to. Inevitably will, though, because that is the way of things. The tide always returns. “What, mind reading?”
“Knowing what to say,” Ezra corrects him.
“Fucked,” Atlas replies.
Intuitively, they both understand. Reading the mind of a person you cannot change is as powerless as time-traveling to an ending you can’t rewrite.
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The moral of the story is this: beware the man who faces you unarmed. But the moral of the story is also this: beware the shared moments of vulnerability between two grown men whose mothers are lost and gone. Whatever is forged between Ezra and Atlas, it is the foundation for everything rotten that follows. It’s the landscape for every catastrophe that blooms. Call it an origin story, a superposition. A second chance at something like life, which is of course the beginning of the end, because existence is largely futile.
Which isn’t to say the others in their Society cohort are unpleasant. Folade, Ade when she’s feeling cheeky, is the oldest and she doesn’t actually give a fuck about any of them, which is, honestly, fair. She fancies herself a poet, is deeply superstitious and the only one of them that’s also religious, which isn’t odd so much as impressive, because it means she gets moments of peace that the rest of them don’t. She’s a physicist, an atomist—the best Atlas has ever seen until he meets Nico de Varona and Libby Rhodes. Ivy is a sunny little rich girl who happens to be a viral biomancer capable of enacting mass extinction in something like five, six days. (Later, Atlas will think, oh. She’s the one we should have killed. Which he does, in a way. But not the way he should have done it, or any way capable of meaningful change.)
Neel is the youngest, chipper and mouthy and deeply twenty-one. He was at the London school with Atlas, though they never spoke because Neel was busy with the stars and Atlas was busy cleaning vomit off his mum or covertly dismantling her thoughts. (There’s a lot of physical junk in his mother’s life too, not just the dregs of her psyche. At first Atlas tries rearranging things in her head, reassigning her anxieties about the unknown, because a well-organized mind seems moderately more helpful for a sanitized home, or possibly he has that backward. One such attempt successfully clears the produce drawer of unidentifiable nightmare rot for a week but then only makes it worse, makes the paranoia sharper—as if she can tell somehow that there’s been a robber, that someone else has been inside. For half a second, things get so bad that Atlas thinks the end is nearer. But it isn’t. And he’s glad about that. But also, he’s absolutely fucked.) Neel is a divinist and he’s always saying things like don’t touch the strawberries today, Blakely, they’re off. It’s annoying, but Atlas knows—can see very clearly—that Neel means it, that he’s never had an impure thought in his life, except for maybe one or two about Ivy. Who is very pretty. Even if she is a walking harbinger of death.
Then there’s Alexis. She’s twenty-eight and fed up with the living.
“She scares me,” Ezra admits over midnight shepherd’s pie.
“Yeah,” Atlas agrees and means it.
(Later, Alexis will hold his hand right before she goes and say that it isn’t his fault even though it is, which Atlas will know because in her head she’s thinking you absolute moron, you stupid little prick. There’s no weight to it because Alexis really isn’t one to dwell on things overlong, and aloud she’ll say just don’t waste it, Blakely, okay? You made your bed, fine, it is what it is, for fuck’s sake just don’t waste it. But he will, of course. Of course he will.)
“Is it just the necromancy thing? The bones?” Ezra is staring into space. “Are bones creepy? Tell me the truth.”
“Souls are creepier than bones,” Atlas confides. “Ghosts.” He shudders.
“Do ghosts have thoughts?” Ezra asks, words slightly slurred with effort.
“Yes,” Atlas confirms.
They’re not that common, ghosts. Most things die and stay dead.
(For example, Alexis does.)
“What do they think about?” Ezra presses him.
“One thing usually. Over and over.” Obsessive-compulsive disorder, that’s one of the first diagnoses Atlas gets when he tries to see if someone can fix him. It’s almost certainly wrong, he thinks. He understands that he’s on the spectrum somewhere, everyone is—that’s the point of a spectrum— but compulsion? That doesn’t sound right. “The ones who stick around this world are usually in it for something specific.”
“Yeah?” Ezra says. “Like what?”
Atlas chews on the corner of his thumb. His mother has seventeen bottles of the same hand cream and suddenly he wishes, desperately wishes, that he had some. For half a second he thinks he should go home.
It passes. He breathes out.
“Who cares what the dead want?” Atlas says.
He isn’t stupid. If he were to die, he knows he’d stay gone.
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The Society doesn’t usually choose its Caretaker from within. You don’t know this yet because you haven’t gotten to this point, but actually, the Society isn’t operated by its own initiates at all. Its initiated members are too valuable, they’re busy, and anyway, imagine the fucking cruelty of having killed someone, living with that, while you take an office job and man the phones. No, the Society is operated almost entirely by completely normal people who undergo completely normal job interviews and have completely normal CVs. They have access to almost nothing of consequence, so it really doesn’t matter what they know.
William Astor Huntington was a classics professor at NYUMA before getting tapped for Caretaker. When the Society’s council, which is made up of initiates, probed at Huntington’s unconventional and slightly worrying choice of successor, they each heard a faint, insistent buzzing sound in their ears. It was distracting enough—and Atlas Blakely’s smile so dazzling, his record so pristine—that they voted unanimously to end the meeting early and go home.
All of which is to say that Atlas being here, in this office, in this position, was no easy feat. Not that you have to admire him for that, but if you wanted to, you could. Caretaker is a political position and he politicked well, politicked beautifully, having had the entirety of his life for practice. Could you argue that Atlas Blakely has never let an honest word pass his lips? You could. Nobody would stop you, least of all him.
Anyway, of his cohort, Atlas is the first to realize the Society’s initiation requirements. Their researcher is a Society initiate who can’t stop thinking about it. An antique gun, close range, the trigger pull that goes off before he’s ready, oh fuck oh fuck hands shaking, pull again, this time it’s bad but not lethal, fuckfuckfuck you idiot, someone help me—
In the end it had taken four of them to get it done. Atlas, bearing witness to the memories secondhand, is like, holy fuck. Thanks but no thanks.
“But the books, though,” argues Ezra. Atlas was already packing his things when Ezra came into his room, pestering him or perhaps merely reminding him. The skin of Atlas’s hands was dry and he hadn’t heard a word from the pub owner downstairs who was supposed to ring him if anything went wrong, but maybe the wards didn’t allow for calls from neighbors? The house wanted him to kill someone, so honestly, who could say whether the phones worked or not.
“The damn books,” Ezra sighed profoundly.
We haven’t discussed yet how much Atlas loves books. How books saved his life. Not at this point in his life, because this was well on the road to ruin. But earlier. Books saved him.
(What he hadn’t realized was that a person had saved him, because people, they wrote the books, the books themselves were just the tethers, the lifelines that dragged him back. But at the time he’d been working in a lousy pub and he thought he hated people. Which he did. Which everyone does from time to time. So anyway, this was a brief but critical error.)
At a time when Atlas was coming of age and learning how difficult his life was going to be—clinically speaking, these would be the spells of worthlessness and emptiness, the dull rage with its fuzzy, indiscriminate lack of concentration, the sharp spikes in antisocial activity, all the isolation and self-sabotage—Atlas was fortunate, at least, to be trapped in a palace of intellectual hoardery, surrounded by piles and piles of books that had once been formative to his mother’s crumbling mind. He had only truly known her there, in the lines and passages she had underlined or dog-eared. The books were his only way of coming to know her as a person of bitter, prodigious craving, a woman who had expected to be eaten alive by love, who wanted desperately, more than anything, to be seen. The books where she still kept a letter, a note that proved it was never just in her mind—the labyrinthine place her mind would become—the convenient excuse for a man to one day decide his affair had been nothing more than her solitary delusion. The books she had taken comfort in, before and after her life had been cleaved in two by the birth of an unwanted son.
“You shouldn’t have bothered,” Atlas muttered to his mother once, thinking how it’s a trap, really. The whole thing. Hitting go on an invisible timer for an ending you don’t get to see. You don’t know how it ends, so you just you do and you try and inevitably you fail, invariably you suffer, and for what? Better she had stayed there, in school, where maybe her genius might have had somewhere to grow, some container to fill, something to become. Better that than this, him wiping drool from her cheek, her eyes listless and dark when they meet his.
“When an ecosystem dies, nature makes a new one,” she said, which might have meant nothing. Maybe nothing at all.
Atlas didn’t hear her at first. He said what, so she said it again, “When an ecosystem dies, nature makes a new one,” and he thought what the absolute fuck are you on about, but then it came back to him later in that critical moment, the moment where he can’t decide whose idea it really was. Ezra’s, maybe, or maybe Atlas put it there. Maybe it had been both of them.
When an ecosystem dies, nature makes a new one. Don’t you get it? The world doesn’t end. Only we do.
But maybe . . . maybe we could be bigger than that. Maybe that’s what she meant. Maybe we are meant to be bigger than that.
(Slowly, Atlas becomes sure. Yes, that must be what she meant.)
It doesn’t matter where it started. Doesn’t matter where it ends. We’re part of the cycle whether we like it or not, so don’t be the wasteland.
Be the locusts. Be the plague.
“Let’s be gods,” Atlas says aloud, and it’s important to remember that he’s on drugs, that he misses his mother, that he hates himself. It’s critical to recall that at this very moment in time, Atlas Blakely is a scared, sad, lonely little speck of a being, a freckle on the arse of humanity’s latest impending doom. Atlas Blakely doesn’t care if he makes it to tomorrow, or tomorrow, or tomorrow. He doesn’t care if he gets struck by lightning, dies tonight. Atlas Blakely is a neurotic, desperate-for-meaning twenty-something-year-old (twenty-five, then) under the influence of at least three mind-altering substances and in the presence of maybe his very first real friend, and at first, when he says it, he isn’t thinking about the consequences. He doesn’t understand consequences yet! He’s a child, functionally an idiot, he’s seen the tiniest sliver of the human experience and doesn’t yet realize he’s dust, he’s a grain of sand, he’s utter fucking maggots. He won’t understand that until Alexis Lai knocks on his door and says hi, sorry to bother you but Neel is dead, he died and inside his telescope was a note that said you killed him.
Which is when, later, Atlas Blakely knows that he fucked up. It takes him at least two more of Neel’s deaths to say it out loud, but he knows it right then, in that moment, even though he doesn’t tell anyone what he’s thinking, which is this: I shouldn’t have asked for power when what I really wanted was meaning.
But now he has both, so. You can see how we’re at an impasse.
“Meaning?” says Libby Rhodes, whose hands are still smoldering. There are pale channels streaking her cheeks, salt mixing with grime by her temples. Her hair is thick with ash and Ezra Fowler is lying crumpled at her feet. Ezra’s last breath was no more than ten, fifteen minutes ago, his last words some few seconds prior to that, and this part, too, will go unspoken: that although Atlas is angry, although he does not know what he expected to feel at the loss of a man that he once loved and currently hates, he still feels. He feels immensely.
But he made a choice long ago, because somewhere out there is a universe where he didn’t have to. Somewhere, there’s at least one world where Atlas Blakely committed a murder that saved four other lives, and now the only path forward is to find it. Or make it.
Either way, there is only one way this story can end.
“Meaning,” replies Atlas, lifting his gaze from the floor, “what else are you willing to break, Miss Rhodes, and who will you betray to do it?”
Copyright © 2024 from Olivie Blake
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